Painting the Parade of Life
How Charles Knight, one the first artists to paint flesh on dinosaurs, influenced what we know about prehistoric creatures as much as any scientist.
By Julie Hannon
Matt Lamanna, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s resident dinosaur hunter, was an undergraduate when he happened upon an image in National Geographic that helped steer his paleontology career. Dominating the frame is a ferocious, meat-eating Moroccan dinosaur named Carcharodontosaurus in full roar, blood spilling from its jaws—a thunderous warning to a much smaller Deltadromeus to steer clear of its prey. The 1996 rendering by paleoartist Mark Hallett breathed life into the little-known dinosaurs of Africa, lighting a fire in the young scientist.
Charles R. Knight, Triceratops
Just four years later, Lamanna helped unearth his first dinosaur, Paralititan—a long-necked giant from Egypt. It was the first in what today is an impressive list of discoveries, the majority made outside of the well-known fossil hotspots of the American West, Mongolia, and China.
“Not since the Lord himself showed his stuff to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones had anyone shown such grace and skill in the reconstruction of animals from disarticulated skeletons.”
- STEPHEN JAY GOULD, SCIENTIST
“When you’re a kid interested in prehistoric life, there’s no more powerful influence than art,” Lamanna says. “It helps you take fragments of fossil bone and imagine them as part of a living, breathing animal.
“Paleontologists, too, are influenced by paleoart,” he adds. As is anyone who can conjure up an image of a fierce T. rex or Triceratops—or any prehistoric creature, really. And it leads back to one man: the late Charles R. Knight (1874-1953), considered by many to be the father of paleoart— who, as it turns out, is Hallett’s greatest creative inspiration.
While not a household name, Knight helped put the magic into early natural history museums. He was among the first to paint flesh on dinosaurs, and bring to life all kinds of prehistoric animals—from saber-tooth cats to woolly mammoths. From the turn of the century to today, his images fill iconic murals on display in some of the country’s most impressive places of discovery, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago among them. Before television and mass-market films, it was Knight who plunged the public into Earth’s deep and fascinating history.
He was lucky to work at a time when paleontology was truly a new frontier. And as the “Bone Wars” of the second half of the 19th century raged on—the heyday of dinosaur discovery, largely defined by the fierce rivalry between leading fossil hunters Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh—Andrew Carnegie and his museum staff commissioned Knight to create a painting of one of the museum’s famed dinosaurs, Triceratops.
Ten iconic Knight paintings—including the commissioned work—are now on view at Carnegie Museum of Natural History through April 26, 2015. They’re accompanied by the real deal—actual fossils that inspired them, plucked from the museum’s massive collections.
“We present the evidence,” says Mark Klingler, one of the museum’s scientific illustrators and guest curator for the exhibition The Scientific Art of Charles R. Knight. “The real thing is what informed the paintings.”
The works showcase some of Knight’s favorite subjects and span some 150 million years, from the Mesozoic Era to the modern age. Michael Friedlander, a Squirrel Hill native and the brainchild behind the exhibition, notes: “Many of the artworks included in the exhibition Knight produced for a 1942 issue of National Geographic.” They appeared as part of a 45-page article titled Parade of Life Through the Ages that Knight both wrote and illustrated.
“At the time the story was published, many people didn’t have access to natural history museums or prehistoric images of any kind,” continues Friedlander, a producer and screenwriter whose fascination with all things prehistoric began with frequent childhood visits to Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “That single issue of National Geographic brought Knight’s magical prehistoric worlds to the general public for the first time, and brought his work to the largest audience of his career.”
Knight, a New Yorker, grew up visiting the American Museum of Natural History—often privately, thanks to his father’s employer, J.P. Morgan—where he let his imagination run wild. He developed friendships with staff in the taxidermy and exhibitions departments, where he received a crash course in comparative anatomy. The museum’s director, Henry Fairfield Osborn, spotting talent and a way to breathe life into the museum’s fossils, eventually took the young artist under his wing.
In a 1935 radio interview, Knight recalled being drawn to the natural world from a young age. “I distinctly remember with what joy I pored over the various wild creatures in the back of Webster’s dictionary,” he said. And, as the story goes, he told his father he was bored by bedtime stories from the Bible. “I’m tired of hearing about Jesus,” he said. “Tell me about the elephants.”
He enrolled in formal art training at the School of Visual Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in Manhattan. And by the age of 16, Knight was living on his own, earning a living as a freelance artist until he landed his first full-time job designing stained-glass windows for churches.
Although Knight repeatedly refused Osborn’s offers of a full-time job, choosing to remain an independent voice, his 50-year relationship with the museum and the access it provided to fossils and great scientific minds had an extraordinary impact.
Over the course of his lifetime, Knight also created nearly 1,000 portraits of living animals representing some 800 species. He would camp out for hours at the Bronx Zoo, painting live portraits of three of his favorite animals from childhood—lions, tigers, and elephants—always studying their bodies and the way they moved.
“That knowledge of knowing an animal from the inside out is what allows you to bring it alive in an active, accurate, and believable way,” says Klingler, who like Knight often makes models of his subjects before drawing or painting them.
Knight’s prolific output is especially extraordinary given that he was legally blind. Already nearsighted and born with a condition that caused blurred vision, Knight suffered a severe injury to his right cornea at age 6. This meant he often painted with his face just inches from the canvas; and for his famous murals, he worked on small panels and used assistants to enlarge them into life-size scenes.
Science writer Richard Milner, who in 2012 published a book about the artist, wrote that Knight’s paleontologist colleagues viewed his work “as an extension of their work mounting fossils in lifelike poses—‘restoring’ the dry bones to life.”
Even as the science changes, the drama and inspiration of Knight’s work remain true.
The late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential scientific minds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, said in his 1989 book Wonderful Life: “ Not since the Lord himself showed his stuff to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones had anyone shown such grace and skill in the reconstruction of animals from disarticulated skeletons.”