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Photo by Hugh Morton
Master at work
Paul Marchand paints fine details onto his lady slipper model for a wildflower display at Grandfather Mountain’s Nature Museum. Catherine Morton, daughter of Grandfather Mountain founder Hugh Morton, believes this photograph was taken sometime in the late 1950s or early ‘60s.
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Botanical model of Oenothera biennis by George and Paul Marchand in the Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York.
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Asclepias syriaca by George and Paul Marchand in the Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York.
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Anna Oakes photo
From Grandfather Mountain
Marchand collected many specimens on site for his models at Grandfather Mountain, including the rare Allegheny Sand Myrtle.
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Photo by Hugh Morton
Paul Marchand returned to Grandfather Mountain in the 1990s to construct models of mushrooms and edible berries native to the area.
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Anna Oakes photo
An artistic warning
Grandfather Mountain’s Catherine Morton (left) points out some of the poisonous mushrooms among Paul Marchand’s models to a visitor.
At Grandfather Mountain in Linville, N.C., the blackberries are always in season, the fragrant mountain laurel is ever-blooming and the delicate lady slippers are never hard to find.
Artist Paul Marchand spent his entire lifetime in the employ of dozens of nature museums across North America, crafting three-dimensional, extraordinarily accurate models.
No matter the season, visitors to Grandfather Mountain can view in lifelike detail the diverse wildflowers, berries and mushrooms native to the area, handmade by “the world’s leading creator of artificial plant life.” At the time of his death in 1996, Paul Marchand’s work was displayed in more than 40 other institutions in the United States and Canada, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
At Grandfather Mountain, the displays are “a really amazingly realistic recreation of some of the things on the mountain that not everyone gets to see,” said Penn Dameron, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. “It just speaks to the creativity of human beings—how we relate to nature. I think that’s one of the key parts of our mission—to find the wonder in it.”
Marchand’s wax creations often were crafted for display in museum dioramas, which are three-dimensional exhibits that feature anatomically precise models of animals, plants, fungi, rocks, and soil in front of painted backgrounds. Once the hallowed haven of the taxidermist—whose specimens perched solitarily in simple glass cases—natural history museums instead began to install habitat dioramas in the late nineteenth century.
“They were powerful tools that [preceded] the advent of sophisticated wildlife photography, motion pictures, television, and computer technologies and can be considered an early form of virtual reality intended to nurture environmental awareness and concern,” wrote naturalist and artist Stephen C. Quinn, the longtime diorama artist for the American Museum of Natural History. Diorama artists traveled to natural locales across the globe to collect samples from which they developed their molds and to intently study the environments to be replicated. “They themselves became great naturalists and experts in their subject matter,” noted Quinn. Dioramas represent a snapshot in time of plants and animals in their natural surroundings—a form of trompe l’oeil, which is art presented in such photographically realistic detail that it can be mistaken for the real thing.
The Family Business
Paul Marchand was born to a family of artists. His father, Henri, was born near Paris in 1877 and attended France’s best schools of art. Henri also studied with sculptor Auguste Rodin, the artist celebrated for “The Thinker” and “The Kiss” and considered the “father of modern sculpture.” He became a sought-after specialist in dioramas and precision wax modeling, and he and his wife Clothilde, also an artist, moved to the United States at the turn of the century. He soon after was employed by the New York State Museum in Albany.
In 1925, Henri was invited to build exhibits from the ground up for the new Buffalo Museum of Science, and he brought sons Paul and George to help. However, Henri’s career took a turn from noted to notorious in 1930.
“In Buffalo, N.Y., last month occurred a sordid sex murder involving two red women,” began the account in Time magazine. Reportedly, Henri’s wife Clothilde answered a knock at the door of her Riley Street home to find Seneca Indian woman, Nancy Bowen. Bowen accused Clothilde of being a witch and then beat her with a hammer, leaving her to die with chloroform-soaked paper in her throat. It later was revealed that Lila Jimerson, a young Seneca woman who modeled for Henri and with whom he had an affair, had convinced Bowen that Clothilde was a “white witch” who had used her powers to kill Bowen’s recently deceased husband, accounts say.
Jimerson fainted during the first trial—subsequently declared a mistrial—and reportedly pled guilty to second-degree murder from her hospital bed, but she later retracted the plea. Ultimately, Jimerson was found to be innocent, and Bowen pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter, serving a short sentence before returning to the reservation. By the time of the second trial, Henri, in his fifties, had remarried one of Clothilde’s eighteen-year-old relatives. A book, From Wicked Niagra: The Sinister Side of the Niagra Frontier, claims that “the crime was not spoken of in the Marchand family, and when there were grandchildren, they did not learn of it until they were adults.”
Fact and Fiction in Fiber and Wax
Throughout the sordid drama, brothers George and Paul had continued to work at the Buffalo Museum until the early 1940s and overall were together for more than twenty years, at several museums, until George relocated to Michigan.
In 1951, Popular Mechanics featured George in an article titled “Sculptor of a Prehistoric World.” It described the Marchand process: “In reproducing a flower, Marchand always starts with the original blossom. A plaster mold is made of each tiny filament, pistil and stamen. Then each part is cast in wax, celluloid or plastic. Delicate wax petals are reinforced with cotton fiber and hair-thin wires. The many parts are then assembled and colored to match the beauty of the original. Some ‘simple’ flowers, such as daisies, require only 15 molds, but a milkweed, much more complex to reproduce, requires 45 different molds.
“A strict perfectionist, he challenges anybody to show him where his models are not true to life,” the article said about George. “His test for quality is simple. He places one of his artificial flowers in a vase with several natural specimens. If anyone can tell which is Marchand’s and which is Nature’s without touching them, he considers his work not satisfactory and rejects it.”
While at the Buffalo Museum of Science from 1925 to 1943, the brothers created a three-part diorama of the Bermuda coral reef, North Atlantic Ocean and “Life of a Wharfpile at Martha’s Vineyard.” To construct the coral reef, Paul and George made eighteen visits to Bermuda to dive and conduct underwater research.
“The Marchands even did a bit of underwater oil painting to make life studies,” according to a 1983 Buffalo Museum of Science newsletter. “The result is dioramas that are so realistic that it is hard to tell them from real life.”
In Rochester, N.Y., the siblings created a three-section diorama for the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, illustrating hundreds of native flowers as they appear in spring, summer, and autumn.
Describing his process, Paul said he would anesthetize an animal such as a frog, pour casting material over it and remove the cast before the creature would emerge from its doze. “Then I take him out in the field and let him go,” he said, as quoted by the Buffalo News.
Earlier in his career, Paul Marchand collected specimens and created plaster molds around them. He filled the molds with melted, bleached beeswax and applied oil paints using paintbrushes and air brushes, according to a 1946 article in The Living Museum, a publication of the Illinois State Museum. But over the years, Paul was a perpetual innovator, incorporating flexible molds and casts, metal molds, latex, celluloid, vinyls, silicones, fiberglass, epoxy, stabilizing natural materials, and varieties of paints and solvents among his methods and materials.
Marchand Meets Morton
To peer through the display cases at Grandfather Mountain’s Nature Museum, one might fancy Paul Marchand’s wild strawberries scrumptious enough to eat. The fragrance of a flowering dogwood seemingly wafts through the air, and if one taps a pink gill mushrooms, there lies the risk of sending hundreds of spores afloat.
Decades after Marchand installed the groupings of wildflowers, edible berries and mushrooms at Grandfather Mountain, they appear in such rich, vibrant detail as to truly deceive the senses. Hugh Morton, founder of the Grandfather Mountain attraction and a widely published photographer, invited Marchand to the mountain sometime around the late 1950s or ‘60s to create exhibits for the new tourist destination, said Morton’s daughter, Catherine. Marchand was friends with Roland Hower, then exhibits designer at Grandfather and a former exhibit designer at the Smithsonian Institute, said Jesse Pope, chief naturalist and Director of Education and Natural Resources for the Stewardship Foundation at Grandfather.
Marchand’s first work for Grandfather was the collection of wildflowers. While some wildflowers were common throughout the East Coast states, Marchand took to the fields and woods of Grandfather to collect rare and endangered species found in the mountain’s unique ecological community, including Alleghany Sand Myrtle and Heller’s Blazing Star. In the ‘90s, Marchand returned to Grandfather to install displays of berries and mushrooms.
“No one has more of his creations showcased than in his home town in Buffalo, N.Y. and here at Grandfather Mountain,” Pope said. “We have more of his work than any other museum outside Buffalo.”
Catherine Morton remembers the artist as a quiet man. “He wasn’t very chatty,” she said. “He was hard to draw out. He didn’t talk about himself much.”
But his work spoke for itself, and local patrons soon came calling.
“I know there were several people from the resort communities around here that contacted him to collect his work,” Catherine said.
Home in Buffalo
Buffalo, N.Y., was always home base for Paul Marchand.
“He came back to the museum in the 1960s to basically refresh the work that he did in the 1920s,” said Kathy Leacock, curator of collections at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Marchand retired several times, but never seemed content to let go. “The most recent collection of Paul Marchand is when he came out of retirement in 1980 to do an exhibit called ‘Insect World.’ He did models of insects that are five times original size,” Leacock said. “Marchand went to Venezuela with the research team and observed the insects in their natural habitat before making models.”
Although wax is susceptible to temperature fluctuations, Marchand’s early models have held up remarkably well over the years, Leacock noted: “One hundred years later, they look like the day they were made.” Some of the Marchands’ best works remain on display at the Buffalo Museum, while others are rotated in and out of storage. “Insect World” is scheduled to return in fall 2013.
Paul worked in his Buffalo area studio until the age of 90, moving to California in 1994 after the death of his wife of 61 years, Mina. He died in 1996 at age 92.
“He did have a few folks apprentice under him over the years, but in the end no one carried on his work,” Pope said. “The cost of his creations became so expensive that it was cheaper, for most museums, to go with a lesser plastic mold design—of course it didn’t have the detail that Paul’s work had.”
An additional complication to continuing the Marchand process was that the way in which he developed the casts required the actual plant and consumed it during the process, Pope said.
“Some of the specimens in the Nature Museum probably couldn’t be replicated today by the same process due to protections that some of those plants have now days,” Pope said. “He wouldn’t be allowed to collect the plant for such a use, in other words. Then it was perfectly acceptable to do his work.”