Sean Murtha is wedged between a gemsbok – a large antelope – and the curving wall of a diorama. Using a palette knife, he applies paint to purple-gray mountains on the horizon of a savanna. He is creating a new background painting of African grasslands for one of the wild-animal dioramas in the Stoll Wing at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum. The gemsbok, wrapped in protective plastic, is one of three preserved animal specimens bolted to the floor of the nine-by-seven foot exhibit case where Murtha is working.
A former staff artist for the American Museum of Natural History – who created the dozen huge background paintings for the dioramas in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life – Murtha is creating two new paintings for the Stoll Wing and will restore or retouch six other paintings.
Murtha’s work is part of a larger renovation of the wing that includes restoration of 20 mounted heads by the renowned taxidermist George Dante, fresh paint, refurbished walls and diorama cases, and installation of a new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system.
The overall restoration, begun in October 2013, was made possible by a gift of $100,000 from Lynnda Speer, granddaughter of Charles H. Stoll (1887-1988), who created the animal habitats that opened in 1970. A Nassau County judge, Stoll was a distinguished Arctic explorer, a naturalist and big-game hunter, and Vanderbilt Museum trustee and benefactor. The eight Stoll Wing dioramas display 15 animals – brought back from around the world by the Stoll and his wife, Merle, between 1922 and 1969 – plus the 20 now-restored heads.
Speer, and her late husband, Roy, through the Roy M. Speer Foundation, gave the gift to endow the restoration and modernization of the Stoll Wing, in the Stolls’ memory. (The wing complements the natural-history galleries and the adjacent Habitat Gallery created by William K. Vanderbilt II.)
Stephanie Gress, the Museum’s director of curatorial services, said Murtha first worked at the Vanderbilt in 2009, when she was awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant to restore the Habitat Gallery. The Save America’s Treasures program was established for the “protection of our nation’s endangered and irreplaceable cultural heritage” and the preservation of “nationally significant intellectual and cultural artifacts and historic structures and sites.” The grants are administered by the National Park Service, in partnership with the Institute for Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Since Vanderbilt had hired artists from the American Museum of Natural History when he began building his own museum in the 1920’s, Murtha said, “Stephanie thought it would be fitting to draw on talent from the same place and same tradition. The Habitat Gallery dioramas are old and preserved an earlier aesthetic, more theatrical than naturalistic. Still, they are beautiful and historically important, and I was honored to have a hand in their preservation.”
Murtha is creating a new African savanna painting to accurately portray the animals’ native habitat. Fortunately, Gress was able to hand him a DVD with vintage movie film shot by the Stolls during a trip in the late 1960s. “It was great,” he said. “I saw the actual habitats where they found these animals. I made screen captures of appropriate landscapes, and used them to design my background.”
Murtha’s work is much different from painting at an easel. After applying gesso – a plaster-like surface preparation – to the wall, he laid out a grid on it. “The grid was distorted to counter the curvature of the side walls of the diorama case,” he said. “This allowed me to both enlarge my design and to create the proper perspective of looking out at a panoramic view.” He paints the sky first, then the landscape, generally from the horizon down to floor-level. “At the bottom, called the ‘tie-in,’ the challenge is to match the three-dimensional objects – such as rocks, grasses and tree branches – as perfectly as possible so that observers don’t perceive the jump.”
Another way Murtha achieves realism is by using a special brush called a stippler. He lightly pounds the wet paint with the tips of its stiff bristles, to blend colors and remove brush marks. “This is especially critical in the sky, creating a smooth, even texture that doesn’t show any glare, which would spoil the illusion,” he said.
Murtha, who grew up in Port Jefferson Station, Long Island, began to make plein-air (outdoor) paintings of the landscapes and beaches near his hometown. Through his teachers, he is part of an unbroken line of America’s most distinguished museum background painters. James Perry Wilson (1889-1976), he said, is considered the greatest of the diorama painters. “I am especially blessed to have known and learned from the last living artist of that period, Fred Scherer, a disciple of Wilson’s, who sadly passed away last November at the age of 97,” he said. “I hope I can carry forward what I have learned, and keep this dying art alive for another generation.”
Murtha said he was drawn to art out of an intense love of nature and the outdoors and “a compulsion to ‘capture’ a moment and place in its entirety. Dioramas are the closest thing I’ve found for doing this.” When he paints at an easel he said he has to be very selective about what he includes. “The edge of the painting, which is as important as the content, is a definitive element. In a diorama, everything is included, and the edges are ‘softer,’ less a limitation than an invitation, beckoning one to look around the corner and suggesting a larger world beyond. There’s a certain magic in that.”
To see Sean Murtha’s paintings, visit www.seanmurthaart.com