Sunday, January 11, 2009

James Perry Wilson’s Dioramas, Part 1

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.


badbot said...

absolutely amazing!
it's seems unrealizable to figure it's possible to paint a realistic-looking landscape behind a model composition, and create a nearly perfect illusion of a real scene.
when i was looking at these shots, i was sometimes trying hard to distinguish the model composition and the painting behind.

he had an insane sense of color!!

thanks for sharing :)

jeff said...

The ones that are done on curved walls are amazing.

I grew up this mans work as my mom used to take me to the Natural History Museum a lot when I was a kid.

I used to get lost in those worlds.

Unknown said...

I have been to that museum several times and marveled at these paintings. I didn't know anything about the artist or the technical complications involved. Now I marvel at them even more! Thanks a lot for the lesson.

Frank said...

Wow, THANK YOU for this!

Since the first time I went to the Museum of Natural History in NY a couple of years ago, I was blown away by how good the dioramas were. As a matter of fact, I tend to enjoy the paintings on the wall more than the animals, usually, but I never knew the name of the artist who painted them.

I always got the sense that untrained viewers didn't know the quality of what it was they were looking at. But maybe they do and just don't geek out over that stuff.


Bowlin said...

I'm with Frank and Andrew also. I was spending more time looking at those murals than the animals themselves. The professional quality of those murals and to know they were done so long ago, still holds up.

armandcabrera said...


Great post! Such a talent. There is an 8 page article on JPW in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue of American Art Review with some stunning examples of his work.

craigstephens said...

Stunning. I'm stunned. What a fantastic artist!

Unknown said...


Since my studio is like a remote location ,JPW has inspired me to paint in the nude. You never know, it just might help.

The dioramas in the Natural Museum in San Francisco are pretty good too.

On the " Did You Know" question, Diorama's cousin Panorama's were huge in the early 1800's around London and large structures were erected to show off these attractions which could seat up to 500 people. Wordsworth was a big fan of these painted Panarama's of such far away cities as Thebes.

Moai said...

Incredible stuff. I'm very interested in learning more about his "unsquare square."

Billy Guffey said...

Wonderful post. An incredible artist. I'd love to see these in person.

By the way, if I try the nude plein air thing, we someone bail me out?

John Nez said...

I used to live just down the street on W. 81st St. from the NY Natural History Museum. My spouse and I would gaze at the dioramas for hours.

Finally, when we moved back for a trip to Colorado, we tried to find the exact location of the original landscape that we'd admired for so long.

But it turned out, the landscape was composed of fragments that never quite matched the painting. But it was close.

That must be a very fun assignment painting those up.


John Nez said...

p.s. The Natural History Museum has a fabulous book about the artists & history of the NY Natural History Museum.

The book is: 'Windows on Nature by Stephen Christopher Quinn.

Anonymous said...

How interesting! Especially since I've been working in a natural history museum for 15 years now.
I have only seen the NHM in Los Angeles, but that was impressive enough. We don't have such huge displays!

Erin English said...

Man, I can remember those diorama paintings from the Nature Museum in Ottawa since I was a kid. I've always been amazed by them...

Alan said...

Thanks so much for posting. He's a fascinating figure, as all dioramists were. Part explorer, part hunter, part artist.

Nick Jainschigg said...

One other thing about JPWs work that you've only alluded to--painting on a curved surface not only affects the perspective, but also the color and value choices. It's impossible to light a curved surface evenly, especially when the lighting space in the diorama is used primarily to illuminate the taxidermy and other 3D elements as dramatically as possible.

Because of that, there will be definite, and occasionally dramatic, shifts in value and chroma across the image. If these aren't accounted for, the background never loses is corporeality, and becomes more like a mural behind the taxidermy. This is quite as important as getting the merge-line right, and actually more difficult. Add to that the fact that all the color effects he achieved were achieved under the lighting in the diorama, and you realize how superlatively well he handled color.

In the jaguar diorama you show, the overall lighting is a neutral blue-violet and relatively diffused, to simulate the sky that is supposedly the main illumination. That's also what's illuminating the wall, so the reds had to be pumped a bit to compensate. There's also (if I remember correctly) a small, soft spotlight shining on the area near where the sun is setting in order to reinforce the illusion of startling brightness. In the diorama itself, some work was probably done with pastels to remove or compensate for unavoidable shadows, such as the one cast by the jaguar on the rock. If you were somehow able to flatten out a JPW diorama background and light it evenly, it would look quite bizarre compared to flat wall painting.

Not coincidentally, this is why a lot of museums these days do just that--use a mural--because relatively few artists have the skill to adjust tones like that, and most museums don't have the budget to take the time to allow those skilled artists to do their thing.