When you stand in front of a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it feels like you’re looking into miles of real space.
But just beyond the taxidermied animals and the fake twigs and leaves, you’re really gazing at a painting on a vertical wall just a few feet away from you. The slightest wrong color note or eyecatching brushstroke would jump out and shatter the effect.
The artist who painted these illusions was James Perry Wilson (1889-1976), who established the highest standard ever reached in diorama backdrop painting.
His first training was in architecture. He was mainly self-taught as a landscape painter. He traveled to study the environments that he sought to portray, making stereo photographs and plein air paintings on location, often using a “widescreen” format with two or more adjacent canvases.
According to contemporary accounts, he occasionally removed his clothes in remote locations and painted in the nude.
He captured both the artistic and scientific truth of a particular locale, with painstaking accuracy of botanical, atmospheric, and geological detail.
In addition to his work in New York, he painted some of the dioramas for the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, The Museum of Science in Boston, and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
Every diorama has a “tie-in” area where the 3-D foreground comes up against the painted back wall. Nay-sayers had claimed that it’s impossible to represent water along the tie-in line. Rising to the challenge, Wilson designed the Connecticut shoreline diorama to feature a couple of areas with tie-ins crossing water areas, including the section above, where the painted illusion begins just beyond the turtle.
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. The tie-in area was the last section to be completed, and had to be painted with four-foot brushes after the foreground elements were in place.
Tomorrow I’ll share some rare notes and technical tips from JPW.
More on Wilson
Wilson’s dioramas have been lovingly preserved thanks to the efforts of Michael Anderson of the Yale Peabody Museum, link,
Stephen Quinn of the American MNH, link,
and Ruth Morrill, JPW’s former assistant and the widow of dioramist Ralph Morrill.
Stephen Quinn’s book Windows on Nature chronicles the story of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History.
Continuation of this post: James Perry Wilson's Diorama's, Part 2.