The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History.
It takes an extraordinary combination of science, mechanics, and artistry to produce the magical realism of a diorama, which contains three fundamental elements: background painting, foreground, and taxidermy specimens.
The habitats featured in many dioramas are exact locations, carefully selected and recorded by Museum artists visiting the actual site in nature. While in the field, the background artist took numerous photographs and paints a series of panoramic sketches that served as a reference for the execution of the finished background back in New York (below.) This required tenacity and courage, as the work could be interrupted by the sudden appearance of an elephant herd, high winds, thunderstorms, or hordes of biting ants or mosquitoes. Even the matter of caring for wet paintings in tropical climates was a challenge.
Unlike traditional easel painting, where the artist paints on a flat canvas, the diorama mural painter works on a true arc. The curved wall is typically constructed of iron framing onto which wire lathe is attached and then plaster is applied in two coats.
After the surface is dried and sealed, canvas is glued or pasted on the curve and then primed before the background painting can begin.
The distortion in the scene created by the curve is compensated for in a number of ways by different artists. While working as a staff member of the Museum, James Perry Wilson revolutionized background painting with his method. He developed a complex mathematical formula for the accurate transfer of photographic references taken in the field onto the curved background in the diorama.
After the background scene is sketched in charcoal, it is sealed with a spray fixative to prepare the surface for painting. Oil paint is the preferred medium, as it dries slowly and allows for blending and stippling over large areas like those representing sky, clouds, and water. Usually no varnish is used, as any shine or gloss will draw attention to the surface of the painting and spoil the illusion of distance. If a shiny surface does occur, background artists often paint these areas with buttermilk, which dries to a flat finish.
In the field, the foreground artists are responsible for collecting soil and rock samples and for taking texture molds of larger rock and tree surfaces.
All plants to be re-created in the foreground are carefully documented in the field, with watercolor sketches, photographs, and collected specimens in the form of herbarium pressed examples, as well as entire plants and leaves preserved in formaldehyde.
To create the illusion of earth and rock underfoot in the foreground of the diorama, a number of steps are taken. Wooden ground contours are laid out and wire mesh is stapled down over them.
Then sisal or sheets of burlap are dipped in plaster and laid out over the wire forms and allowed to harden. This solid structure simulates the ground terrain and provides the base onto which the soil, leaf litter, plant models, and all other accessories will be installed.
Using references and specimens they collect in the field, foreground artists create all the models and accessories in a diorama except for the taxidermy. The work requires so much material collected in the field that Raymond deLucia, who worked as a foreground artist at the Museum for more than forty years, would advise his team to "bring back three times more than you think you need, and you still probably won't have enough!"
The last element installed in any diorama is usually its central figures, the taxidermy specimens.
The placement and poses of the mounted specimens are determined during the creation of a preliminary scale model of the diorama, either in the field or back at the Museum soon after the expedition returns.
The taxidermy process used for creating a mounted specimen of an Asiatic lion begins with sculpting the clay mannequin form based on the animal's field measurements. Note the preliminary scale model nearby for reference.
The plaster mold is partially removed from the original clay mannequin form. It is in this plaster mold that the hollow papier-mache mannequin will be cast.
John W. Hope removes the papier-mache mannequin from the plaster mold.
The papier-mache mannequin is assembled by John W. Hope.
The finished papier-mache mannequin is a perfect, hollow, lightweight replica of the clay original.
The tanned lion skin is glued, pinned to, and stitched over the papier-mache mannequin.
James L. Clark grooming the finished lion mount.
Because the sculpted figure is ultimately covered by a tanned skin, the talent and skill of the taxidermist is often overlooked, as the specimen is perceived as a living animal and not a work of art. "As long as we work in clay, it's art," Museum taxidermist David Schwendeman said. "But once we cover our work with a skin it becomes mere taxidermy."
In autumn, during the mating season, bull moose will occasionally battle with one another over females. This contest between these large, imposing animals is one of such spectacle and drama that it was chosen as the subject of one of the largest dioramas in the Hall of the North American Mammals.
Upon arriving at the chosen site on the Serengeti, James L. Clark and William R. Leigh made a small-scale model of the envisioned final diorama. The finished lion diorama at the museum is so realistic that the viewer feels drawn into the scene as a virtual member of the pride. The lions seemingly gaze into the painted background with us and respond with intense interest to the herds of passing antelope and wildebeests.
Our national mammal, the American bison, was, at one time, among the most abundant of all large mammals in North America, numbering as many as sixty to seventy-five million animals. Their decline following the settling and development of the West was swift, however, and by 1895 only eight hundred animals remained. This scene revisits the era when vast herds of bison would stretch out along the horizon as far as the eye could see.
Despite proximity to the viewer of these majestic animals, it's not the sheep but the looming mountain painted in the background that captivates the eye.
Background painter Belmore Browne loved Alaska and was concerned about the slaughter and rapid disappearance of Alaska's large mammals. He actively campaigned to establish Mount McKinley as a wildlife refuge.
A diorama's lighting is crucial to creating the illusion of a real habitat, be it the glaring midday heat of the desert, the warm glow of late afternoon, or the pale luminescence of moonlight on snow. A bright unnatural hotspot, a poorly aimed floodlamp, or shadow cast across the background painting can all spoil the intended illusion and destroy a diorama's ultimate effect. In this regard, the gemsbok diorama benefits from a technology new in the 1940s: fluorescent lightbulbs.
This diorama is remarkable for its beautifully rendered sky. The colors descend in perfect gradation from crystal blue at the sky's zenith to a warm reddish glow at the horizon near the setting sun. Few artists would attempt such a challenge, and even fewer could successfully create this effect so convincingly. James Perry Wilson, the artist who painted this background, was well prepared for the challenge. He created a sky color mixing formula, indicating how he would mix colors to create a perfectly blended sky from the horizon to the zenith.
Two Museum visitors were standing watching James Perry Wilson about to paint over one of his charcoal sketches for the coyote diorama when one whispered to the other, "I hope he doesn't muck it up."
Wilson's devotion to verisimilitude attracted its share of critics. One of his Museum colleagues derided his backgrounds as "giant Kodachromes." Wilson rejected this characterization of his work. Instead, the man known as the "Invisible Artist" was aiming for a reaction like the one given by a four-year-old boy who, upon looking at one of Wilson's dioramas, said, "Oh, out-of-doors!"
The accurate depiction of these predators in motion is only half the story. Where is their prey?
The running wolves are leaving visible tracks in the snow behind them, but we are aware of a third—and distinct—set of tracks that passes directly in front of us and exits the scene to the right, indicating that the tracks were made by an animal running ahead of the wolves.
The true meaning of the American Museum of Natural History goes far beyond its walls, its collections, and its staff. Its mission is to generate and share knowledge of the natural world around us. It is an institution dedicated to celebrating our understanding of the Earth and our relationship to it. The Museum reflects our wonder and desire to learn about the world in which we live. These "windows on nature" will continue to provide a brilliant vision of a healthy, vital world where wildlife and wilderness exist in harmony with humankind.
Copyright © 2006 American Museum of Natural History, photos © Denis Finnin/AMNH, text © 2006 Stephen Christopher Quinn.