Monthly Archives: February 2012


The Wapiti or Elk group is from the  Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History (1941). The background painting is by James Perry Wilson. Michael Anderson, the Wilson scholar who is based at the Yale Peabody Museum, wrote to me quoting a letter from Wilson where he is describing how he projected a slide he had taken of the moon so that it was three-foot by two foot on the wall. The moon came out three and an eighth inches in diameter. He notes that this is the same size as in the moon he painted in the Wapiti diorama (above). Michael asked me to calculate the focal length of the lens Wilson was using and therefore, working with Wilson’s projection method, calculate if the moon was the correct size in the diorama. The lens turned out to be 300mm, something Michael was later able to corroborate from notes on some of Wilson’s moon slides. From this and working out the depth of the diorama where the moon is painted from a scale drawing, I calculated that Wilson had painted the moon 50% too large. The picture above is rather small, but you can see the moon just above the horizon next to the tree in the left foreground. Wilson was fastidious about such things, so the discrepancy needed chasing. There is an optical anomaly called the moon illusion. When the moon is close to the horizon it appears 50% larger than when it is high in the sky. There are many theories for why this is, but there is consensus on the 50%. There are no notes from Wilson about this, but my speculation is that this is the reason why Wilson painted the moon this size.

Anyway, it is a stunning diorama and is looking wonderful after a spring clean (if a little over lit).

Look in the earlier Diorama posts for suggestions on how to view 3D pairs of photographs.

Drawing by Drawing book

I have just received a copy of the book Dirty Dedicated Daring Delicate Drawings published by the Danish Architecture Centre to accompany the Drawing by Drawing exhibition (see a few posts back for pictures of the exhibition and other details). As you might be able to see it is two formats of book intertwined. Lots of colour reproductions of the drawings in the exhibition and a series of short essays by the director of the DAC, the contributors  and curator as well as a few longer essays by Carsten Thau, Alberto Perez-Gomez, Juhani Pallasmaa, Henrik Oxvig and Sue Fergusson Gussow.

Contact details for the DAC bookshop:

Jeffrey Pine Forest

This is another James Perry Wilson diorama, this time from the Hall of North American Forests at the American Museum of Natural History. Wilson had brought the rigour of architectural perspective projection to diorama painting and had developed his dual grid method of perspectival projection to deal with the cycloramic diorama shell. In his later work (this gallery opened in 1957) he was also using stereoscopic photography in his survey work and would paint working from stereoscopic viewers. If you compare his forest paintings of this time with the work of others there is a spatial clarity in the shaded areas that is unique, a facility that I suspect is partly due to what is revealed in his stereoscopic surveys.

See the posts below for suggestions on how to view stereoscopic images.

Florida Black Bear

Usually the diorama painters tried to keep everything but the sky on the pat of the diorama shell below where it forms a half dome. Although this section is curved in plan it is vertical in section. As soon as a  part of the painting transgresses onto the part of the wall that curves in section there is a problem when the observer moves – the parallax between the two viewing positions will distort the object. This is fine for a desert or even a mountain scene, where it is possible to paint everything below the dome. In a woodland scene where you are among the trees it is impossible to avoid, so James Perry Wilson, who painted this background, kinks the trunks of the trees just as the diorama shell transitions into the domed ceiling, or masks the straight trunks with palm leaves. You can see this transition if you look at the pair stereoscopically. (See advice on this a couple of posts down).

The light in this painting is very beautiful, catching a hazy moisture-laden air. It was painted in 1947 and is another diorama from the American Museum of Natural History in the North American Mammals hall


This stereo pair of photographs is of the Coyote group at the American Museum of Natural History. The background painting is by James Perry Wilson (1949). It is of a scene in Yosemite. See the previous post for suggestions on getting a good stereoscopic resolution.

Alaska Brown Bear

Earlier in this blog I posted some of the research I have done on habitat dioramas. Some of the best examples are at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Hall of North American Mammals there is just about the high point of the art. Most or the really amazing ones are by James Perry Wilson (I will post some examples later in the week) but there are also some other wonderful ones, such as the Alaska Brown Bear with a background painting by Belmore Browne (1941).

As usual with the stereoscopic images, click on the image and then make it small enough so that you can resolve both images over each other when you go cross-eyed. You will see three images and should concentrate on the middle one. If you can hold the image, try to relax and the depth will improve. The 3D resolution makes a very different sense of the image as you can see where the tie-in is between the material foreground and pictorial background, something that is (skilfully) lost when you see it as a picture.

I took these pictures a while ago – since then many of the dioramas have been re-lit, a little brighter than before. They have been beautifully restored but I am not so keen on the brighter lighting. Don’t miss them if you are in New York.

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