JPW at the Natl. Academy of Sciences

I was in Washington DC for most of last week.  I had a museum mountmaking conference at the Smithsonian on Weds and Thurs, but I took Friday to visit the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  The NAS is a Goodhue building (1924) and James Perry Wilson had a prominent role in its construction.  The museum has two artworks from 1922 by Wilson on display.  One is a watercolor rendering of the building and the other is an oil on canvas of the building by moonlight.

I couldn’t help think how Wilson studied how to paint moonlit landscapes all through his life.  This puts his study of moonlight back into the early 1920’s.  I know of two other moonlit seascapes from Monhegan painted in the 1920’s.  Conrad Schweiring writes about how Wilson at age 69 came out West in the summer of 1959 on an expedition to collect reference paintings/photographs for the Badger and the Flying Squirrel dioramas in the Small Mammal Hall at the AMNH.  The Flying Squirrel  is a nocturnal diorama and he and Wilson stayed up one night during the full moon to practice  painting by moonight.  They concluded that all the colors are present in a moonlit landscape, but they are all muted down by the gray, which puts them close together in value.  The Racoon diorama is also a nocturnal diorama and it predates the Flying Squirrel by 6 or 7 years.  I always remember the Racoon diorama because it has tiny specks of broken mirror glued to the background painting to catch light from above to simulate stars.  It is a quite convincing effect-not to mention baffling if you don’t know how it is done.  I thought they had drilled holes in the wall to let light from behind shine through!

There are also several plein air paintings JPW paintied at night.  There are a couple of houses painted in the moonlight with light shing out from the windows-very similar to the NAS painting.  There are at least three seascapes From Monhegan painted in the moonlight.

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3 Comments on “JPW at the Natl. Academy of Sciences”

  1. Dorie Says:

    How very cool that you visited the Academy of Nat Sciences. That is on my
    list of places to visit, as well. And it seems JPW earllier paintings are so restricted compared to his later landscapes, but technique of the moonlit bldg reminiscent of his painterly style.

    Hope you had a good visit in DC. See you on Wednesday.


  2. Sean Murtha Says:


    Glad to see the blog continues when the exhibit is finished. I could go on and on about Wilson’s nocturnes (I too thought the stars were holes drilled through!) but what immediately struck me with these architectural renderings was, once again, my fascination with Wilson’s Chesley Bonestell connection. They met in architecture school, and Bonestell also did many nocturnal architectural renderings, many very like this one, water reflections, dark cedars and all. One wonders if this was a part of their mutual education. Its almost uncanny how alike they are. Wilson is often accused of artlesness in his adherence to reality, but the windows he chose to light in this one, coupled with the reflection, shows a great mastery of composition. I’ll have to get down and see this one in person.

    Also interesting to see a Wilson watercolor. Did he do many?

    • Linda Miller Says:


      I just spotted this. I am so glad that the blog is continuing as well! I love the oil painting of the building in moonlight. I remember seeing one of the Monhegan moonlight paintings and being amazed that he did plein air painting at night. I’d love to see all of the others. I agree with Sean that the light in the windows and the reflection below in the water makes the painting of the building a deeper, more sensitive study. The watercolor seems more like a rendering that he did as part of an architectural assignment, but I would like to see some more of his watercolors as well. I love his drawings…It would be great if you include some of the drawings on the blog at some point and discuss them also.

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