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Diorama diversity.

THE AMERICAN MUSEUM of Natural History is one of the world's preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. Since its founding in 1869, the museum has advanced its global mission to explore and interpret human cultures and the natural world through a wide-reaching program of scientific research, education, and exhibitions. The institution houses 46 permanent exhibition halls, state-of-the-art research laboratories, one of the Western Hemisphere's largest natural history libraries, and a permanent collection of more than 30,000,000 specimens and cultural artifacts. With a scientific staff of more than 200, the museum supports research divisions in Anthropology, Paleontology, Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology, and the Physical Sciences.

Yet, for all who visit, the museum remains, above all, a visual feast, in no small part due to the vivid, lifelike murals that serve as backdrops to so many of the animal dioramas found throughout the great edifice's many exhibition halls--and no wonder. When executing these precisely rendered images, the museum engaged some of the very best artists of the day to bring life on planet Earth to ... well ... life.


Arthur August Jansson (1890-1960) served as a background painter for dioramas in AMNH's Hall of Asian Mammals, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, and the Birds of the World hall. Jansson accompanied Carl Akeley on Akeley's final expedition to Africa in 1926 to gather field sketches for the dioramas in the African Hall. Jansson also completed diorama backgrounds for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. He trained at the Art Students League in New York from 1909-12, as well as at the New York Industrial Arts School and the School of Modern Methods in Chicago.

Dudley M. Blakely (1902-82) contributed background paintings and foreground work to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, such as the gemsbok diorama, during the 1930s. He also designed and fabricated exhibits and provided architectural drawings and models for the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Michigan, where he was in charge of the exhibit department. He worked for the Museum of Science, Boston, as well.


Belmore Browne (1880-1954) received his training at the New York School of Art and the Academie Julian in Paris, pursuing a career as an illustrator and painter of wildlife and wilderness. As a naturalist, Browne participated in a number of AMNH expeditions to Alaska. He campaigned for the preservation of Mt. McKinley as a wildlife refuge (Denali National Park). While director of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) School of the Arts from 1934-36, Browne painted backgrounds for that city's Museum of Natural History, something he also did for the Museum of Science, Boston.

George Browne (1918-58) was trained by his father, Belmore Browne. George assisted him in the AMNH Hall of North American Mammals. Two of George Browne's background paintings can be found in the 1950s addition to the African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences.

Charles Shepard Chapman (1879-1962) worked as an illustrator, but was best known for paintings of wilderness landscapes of the northern and western U.S. He painted the background for the mountain lion diorama in the American Museum of Natural History's Hall of North American Mammals, which features the Grand Canyon. He attended the Ogdensburg Free Academy and Pratt Institute, and was elected to the Council of the National Academy of Design in 1926.


Louis Aggasiz Fuertes (1874-1927), who studied under American artist and naturalist Abbott Thayer, primarily was a bird painter and illustrated many avian books. At AMNH, he painted the large background scene for the flamingo habitat group (currently on display as a wall mural), as well as individual birds in the backgrounds for the whooping crane, Canada goose, and Cuthbert Rookery dioramas-all for the Hall of North American Birds. Collections of his paintings are held by the museum's Department of Ornithology, as well as Cornell University and the New York State Museum in Albany.

Joseph Guerry (1906-67) served as an artist at AMNH for 37 years. The leopard diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals is a free example of Guerry's ability as a background painter. He also worked as a foreground and graphic artist throughout his career at AMNH. He was trained at Missouri University, Kansas City Art School, and the Art Students League in New York.

Chades J. Hittel (1861-1938) primarily painted western wilderness themes. At AMNH, Hittel contributed some of the earliest backgrounds for the Hall of North American Birds, such as the golden eagle. Other diorama backgrounds by Hittel can be found at the Zoological Museum in Berkeley, Calif. He was trained at the San Francisco School of Design (1881-83), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1884-88), and the Academic Julian in Paris (1892-93).

Robert Bruce Horsfall (1868-1948) is best known as a bird illustrator, and was one of the first artists hired by Frank M. Chapman, chairman of the Department of Ornithology, to paint diorama backgrounds for the Hall of North American Birds (1902). An avid field naturalist, Horsfall also painted backgrounds for the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis and the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Conn. He studied art at the Cincinnati Academy of Art from 1886-89, and at art academies in Munich and Paris from 1889-93.

Francis Lee Jaques (1887-1969) had no formal art training; he was taught background painting by fellow artist Clarence C. Rosenkranz, and rose to become one of the museum's most respected diorama artists. The majority of Jaques' backgrounds are at AMNH, where he was employed as an artist from 1924-42. In total, he painted backgrounds for approximately 80 dioramas during his career. Jaques is best known for his paintings of birds, especially waterfowl in flight. His greatest contribution to scientific illustration was his accompanying paintings for Robert Cushman Murphy's book Oceanic Birds of South America (1936). Collections of Jaques' bird paintings and studies can be found at the Peabody Museum, Bell Museum, and AMNH. His diorama backgrounds also can be viewed at the Bell Museum of Natural History, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, University of Nebraska Museum, Illinois University Natural History Museum, and Museum of Science, Boston.

Matthew Kalmenoff (1905-86) was known as "Kal" to his fellow artists and was employed at AMNH from the 1950s through the early 1970s. His work can be found in the Hall of North American Forests, the renovated Hall of North American Birds, and the Small Mammal Corridor of the Hail of North American Mammals.

William R. Leigh (1866-1955), though born in the U.S., was trained in Europe, graduating from the Munich Art Academy in 1888. Specializing in subjects and landscapes related to the American West, his work was admired by taxidermist Carl Akeley, who hired Leigh in 1926. Accompanying Akeley to Africa, Leigh assisted in creating field sketches for the African Hall and, back in New York, served as master painter in charge of the creation of the backgrounds. All together, Leigh executed eight background paintings for AMNH before returning to his preferred genre--scenes of the American West.

Robert Kane (1910-82) joined the staff of AMNH in 1932 as an artist-assistant to William R. Leigh, working on the background paintings in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Kane's first assignment was to assist Leigh in the underpainting for the mountain gorilla diorama. In 1934, he was sent to Africa to collect materials and make field sketches for the dioramas in the African Hall. His best known background paintings are the hunting dog and the black rhinoceros dioramas for that hall.

Sean Murtha (b. 1968) joined the exhibition staff of AMNH in 1996. That year Murtha participated in the museum's expedition to the Central African Republic to collect materials for the Dzanga-Sangha rain forest diorama in the Hall of Biodiversity. Murtha contributed several background paintings in 2003 during the renovation of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. He graduated from Pratt Institute in New York with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1990.

Hobart Nichols (1869-1962) was a staff artist who did some of the earliest background paintings created for AMNH, including those for the Hall of North American Birds--peregrine falcon, Canada goose, and loon, among others (1902) and the former Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians (1913-14), along with an early wolf diorama (1918).

Chris E. Olsen (1880-1965), in addition to being a painter, was considered an expert amateur entomologist and general naturalist. Olsen is best known for undersea exhibits such as the Andros Coral Reef and the Pearl Diver dioramas in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. His work was not restricted to painting, and he was an extraordinary foreground artist and model-maker as well. Olsen retired in 1947 after more than 30 years with AMNH.

Clarence C. Rosenkranz (1871-1946) served as expedition artist during AMNH's Vernay-Faunthorpe expeditions to Asia in the 1920s, and subsequently was hired to paint the backgrounds for the Hall of Asian Mammals. Background painter Francis Lee Jaques credits Rosenkranz as his greatest teacher. Under Rosenkranz's tutelage, and from his field sketches, Jaques painted the leopard diorama in the Hail of Asian Mammals. Other Rosenkranz backgrounds for AMNH appear in the Hall of African Mammals (giant sable), as well as in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Carl Rungius (1869-1959) immigrated to New York in 1894 after studying at the German Academy of Art in Berlin. He became a prolific wildlife painter and big game hunter, returning annually for almost 50 years to Banff in the Canadian Rockies to hunt and paint wildlife. Rungius was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in 1920. From 1913-34, he worked on a series of paintings featuring threatened North American wildlife, commissioned by William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society. Rungius' most notable contribution to the dioramas at AMNH is the background painting for the monumental fighting bull moose diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals. The largest collection of his works are held by the Glenbow Museum in Alberta, Canada.

James Perry Wilson (1889-1976), after graduating from Columbia University in 1914 with a degree in architecture, worked as a draftsman for nearly 20 years until he lost his job during the Depression. He had no formal art training and largely was a self-taught landscape painter with some early help from his family, who were artistically inclined. Wilson began his career at AMNH in 1934 as an apprentice under William R. Leigh, who was working on background painting, including a grid system for the transfer of an undistorted landscape onto a curved diorama background. By the time of his retirement in 1957, Wilson had painted 38 diorama backgrounds at the museum. His work also can be found at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and Museum of Science, Boston.

Frederick Scherer (b. 1915) started working at AMNH at age 19 on Oct. 9, 1934; it was after he brought in a model of a bear he had sculpted that James L. Clark (who had spent years exploring with Carl Akeley in Africa) gave him the job. Scherer first worked as a foreground artist for the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, making plant models for the mountain gorilla diorama. Scherer became interested in background painting and asked Clark if he could try his hand at it. James Perry Wilson became his mentor and Scherer began assisting on Wilson's tie-ins. Scherer eventually would paint 15 backgrounds in the museum. One of his most colorful tales happened while out on the Canadian tundra in Churchill, Manitoba, field-sketching for the diorama in the museum's Birds of the World hall. Scherer was stalked by wild dogs, and avoided becoming their prey by confronting the canines, who retreated when Scherer refused to be intimidated.
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Title Annotation:Museums Today
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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