Friday, March 4, 2011

Natural History Museum dioramas, New York City

Source: Research Library, American Museum of Natural History
James Perry Wilson (above) painting the background for Western Pine Forest Group, Forestry Hall

The painted dioramas in The Natural History Museum in New York City are some of the most outstanding examples of mural painting that I have ever seen. There is a palpable sense of place in these dioramas, such that the viewer feels instantly transported. The feeling is not unlike vertigo. Though the hand of the artist is distant, the sense of joy and awe they clearly felt is there in abundance.

James Perry Wilson was one of a group of incredibly talented artists responsible for painting the dioramas. Yale Peabody Museum (for whom he also painted dioramas) presents an excellent and in depth study. The author says of him that "it is worth noting one of the differences between Wilson's plein air painting and his diorama work.  Accuracy was possibly more pronounced in Wilson's diorama work than in his plein air studies, but in both, he tried to paint himself out of the painting to allow the viewer to focus on the illusion of reality and not the artifice of its creation.  Wilson sought to make the artist transparent."

In fact, it takes close inspection to tell that there are different hands involved in the production of the paintings. Yet somehow they defy blandness of expression, and maintain a freshness that is still present many years after they were produced, despite aging and the damaging effects of ultra-violet light.
"Wilson's paintings have a clarity and lack of muddiness that would have been impossible to achieve had he fussed over mistakes, over-painted, or made numerous changes."

The article goes on to describe the fascinating characters and working conditions at the Natural History Museum in the '30s:
"In 1934 when Wilson started at the AMNH, many of the major figures producing dioramas were already at work: Francis Lee Jaques, William R. Leigh, Robert Rockwell, James  L. ClarkBelmore Brown, Carl Rungius, and Hanson Puthuff would come a few years later.  Even though Carl Akeley had died eight years before, his influence was still strongly felt.  All of these men were not only extraordinary artists, but they were also outdoorsmen, hunters, and explorers.  They walked with a swagger, they had strong personalities and big egos.  Conrad Schwiering described working as an apprentice with these diorama painters in the summer of 1941:
Imagine my sitting there on a ladder in the middle of a wildlife setting listening to [Charles] Chapman and William R. Leigh debate points of perspective, with Belmore Brown finally coming over from where he had been working to tell them they were both nuts-then Brown giving his own views on the matter in eloquent style...."

The effect of staring into Wilson's sunset is almost blinding. It's that convincing. Largely self-taught as an artist, his immense painterly skill is matched by his technical mastery of perspective and composition. James Gurney, the Dinotopia creator, writes on his great blog Gurney Journey of Wilson's working method that;
"The full backdrop was often 35 feet wide or more, with a dome-shaped ceiling. This required large amounts of paint and careful mixtures. To make the perspective accurate across such a oddly curving surface, Wilson worked out a unique grid system that he called “the unsquare square” to compensate the foreshortening of the side sections. Every backdrop was carefully planned using maquettes, color sketches, and full-size charcoals drawn on the backdrop before the final paint was applied."

These artists were dedicated professionals and all went to extraordinary lengths to create their work. Carl Akeley (along with William R. Leigh) famously made an expedition to the Congo in 1924 to research the landscape for the Gorilla diorama, and wrote a book detailing his experience, called In Brightest Africa, available for free download. They were dangerous and physically taxing journeys into the blankest sections of the map, pith helmets and pistols in hand. In fact, Carl Akeley died on the Eastman-Pomeroy expedition to Africa in 1926, underscoring the demanding nature of the work.

James L. Clark, the man responsible for building the diorama halls, had a number of close scrapes himself, on one occasion falling ten feet into an elephant trap and miraculously missing sharp, poisoned bamboo stakes on the way down. He and Akeley, in a fit of impetuousness driven by boredom, once decided to ignore warnings of "hostile natives with poisoned arrows" to climb Mount Elgon (14,176').

I posted a large set of photographs of the dioramas on my Flickr page.


  1. Absolutely fascinating. I agree that these dioramas and others across the country are just exemplary works of art. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall listening to those debates on perspective. Incredible characters and personality, one and all.

  2. thanks for posting your shots! i only had my iphone with me last time i was there and really regretted not carrying my camera with me... some fantastic painting in those scenes.

    this is a nice book well worth having- some very nice background info as well as good photographs, it's called "windows on nature"

  3. This is a killer post Alan! The pictures are wonderful.