To really succeed, you have to paint a scene without any individual style. Some people call it “painting actuality.” It’s carefully composed, but composed to be artless, that is, it doesn’t make you conscious of the means it took to produce it. (Above, bighorn sheep diorama in New York, with background by
Carl Akeley, who helped develop the art of the diorama to its highest level at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, put it this way:
"The landscape painter who has cultivated a style or manner is not any good…the painted background must display a complete unity with the mounted animals. The painter must make the beholder forget that he is looking at paint, and feel that he is looking at nature itself. The artist must forget himself in his work. We must set the standard to which others will have to rise."
William R. Leigh, one of the backdrop painters for the AMNH said painting backdrops "calls for the utmost measure of truth; there is in it no place for individuality."
Leigh did brilliant studies in Africa (above) as preparation for his diorama paintings. But great as he was as a painter, some of his backdrops were criticized for their distracting style. Trained in Germany in the Dusseldorf tradition, he had a hard time getting rid of the very theatrical lighting, brushwork, and unnatural colors that served him well as an easel painter. The backdrop below is by W.R. Leigh.
The person who fit into the role perfectly was James Perry Wilson, who I’ve mentioned a few times before in other contexts. Wilson came from a background in architectural illustration, and was largely self-taught. He first worked at the museum assisting Leigh, who was 20 years older. Wilson learned the craft, and then applied his own intellect to the unique challenges of the art form.
Wilson (above) was a slow painter and a bit aloof in his personality. The detailed story of what he went through to navigate the museum politics is told in the latest chapter of Wilson’s life by online biography.
This chapter is no ordinary blog post. Wilson’s story is being written by the Peabody Museum’s own Michael Anderson, who originally planned it for a book, but is publishing it online instead, chapter by chapter.
Wilson Biography, Chapter 5: Joining the American Museum of Natural History (scroll halfway down for the discussion of stylelessness).
Quote is from W. R. Leigh, Frontiers of Enchantment. 1939, p.49.
The big book on the AMNH diorama is Windows on Nature by Stephen Quinn
Previously on GJ: "James Perry Wilson's Dioramas"