Paleoart: The Strange History of Dinosaurs in Art – in Pictures

Sunday, July 23, 2017

 Charles R. Knight was one of the foremost American paleoartists. These predators likely represent paleontologists Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose savage competition defined early American paleontology. Illustration: Craig Chesek/Courtesy of Taschen

Since the early 19th century, artists have depicted colourful – if sometimes fictional – dinosaurs and prehistoric environments, mingling science with unbridled fantasy. This art is the subject of a new book: Paleoart

All images courtesy of Taschen

Model room at the Crystal Palace by Philip Henry Delamotte, 1853

This engraving shows dinosaur sculptures being constructed on the grounds of the Crystal Palace by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who made 33 beasts over two years. 1853 also saw the first mention of a dinosaur in fiction – in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House: ‘As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’

The Primitive World by Adolphe François Pannemaker, 1857

For the earliest ‘paleoartists’, fossil bones were blank slates upon which they could project their own imaginations. Pannemaker, like many artists of his time, inserted biblical and mythological imagery into his art; here, prehistory appears as apocalyptic war zone, replete with fire, lightning, and an erupting volcano.

The Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur (Lias Period) by Édouard Riou; engraved by Laurent Hotelin and Alexandre Hurel, 1863

From the very beginning, artists and scientists portrayed ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs as dire enemies. Warring above the waves, the two reptiles became the single most prevalent motif in 19th-century paleoart, in part because they provided ideal allegorical vessels for the naval conflicts of the age.

Laelaps by Charles R Knight, 1897

Knight was one of the foremost American paleoartists, and Laelaps was profoundly influential for its remarkably credible depiction of anatomy and movement. Some believe that these predators represent the savagely competitive palaeontologists Othniel C Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, both of whom would blow up dig sites with dynamite to obstruct the other’s discoveries.

Inostrancevia, devouring a Pareiasaurus by Alexei Petrovich Bystrow, 1933

These two species cropped up regularly in Soviet–era paleoart. Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, who painted the same beasts early in his career, despised Bystrow’s interpretation, calling the rival artist ‘colour blind’.
Illustration: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS

Mammoth (Elephas primigenius) by Zdeněk Burian, 1941

From the age 17, Czech artist Burian had hundreds of illustrated adventure stories, among them Kidnapped, The Jungle Book and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He began taking frequent camping trips to immerse himself in the natural world and in 1935, met palaeontologist Josef Augusta, who recognised Burian’s talent and imagination. Burian would go on to illustrate many of Augusta’s books on prehistory, rendering extinct animals with creative flair.

Tarbosaurus and armoured dinosaur by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, c. 1955

While the Russian Flyorov always identified primarily as a scientist, he never produced illustrations based on actual data. He regularly disregarded skeletal remains and rarely consulted palaeontologists on their behaviour or anatomy. Paired with his love for vibrant colour, Flyorov often created his beasts by taking modern animals and adding spikes, tusks, humps, and horns.
Illustration: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS

Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus by Ely Kish, c 1976

One of the few women to work in the field, Canadian artist Ely Kish’s subjects were often set in extreme weather conditions. Working from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Kish was active at a time when scientists first recognised and publicised global climate change. She painted numerous scenes of the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs, imbuing her images of prehistoric apocalypse with modern-day anxiety.
Photograph: Eleanor Kish, © Canadian Museum of Nature