15 April 2008

Dino Dreams from Rudolph Zallinger

I grew up loving dinosaurs, like any good elementary school boy. Unfortunately, this was during the last days before the “Dinosaur Renaissance,” a scientific movement that revitalized studies of the Mesozoic and changed the image of dinosaurs toward the warm-blooded, fast-moving ancestors of birds that we know today through books and pop-culture. The Renaissance was on in earnest by the early 1970s because of the discovery of Deinonychus, but scientific revelations take many years to filter down to popularizations, textbooks, and eventually volumes for children. Many of the dino books I had as a child in the ‘70s were first written in the ‘60s using data from the ‘50s—a time when Apatosaurus still lived in a swamp and was called Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus was a slow-moving scavenger, and there was such a dinosaur as Trachodon (now fully “hadrosaurized”). It was better than the four-footed creatures from the Crystal Palace exhibition in the mid-nineteenth century, but so much has radically changed since then that some of the old assumptions are a bit comical today. (I still get a thrill from those Crystal Palace dinos; they’re so fresh and innocent.)

However, the “slo-mo-dino” era does have its own reality, a popular culture reality, that gives me a nostalgia rush when I think back to my childhood dinosaur books. My favorite of these books was Album of Dinosaurs by Tim McGowen, a picture book with features on twelve dinosaurs and some beautiful full-color paintings with vibrant colors. These illustrations had a major effect on how I visualized dinosaurs as a child.

Almost as important to my view of the Mesozoic fauna is the mural “The Age of Reptiles” by Rudolph Zallinger that is the pride of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. This competes with the earlier work of Charles R. Knight for the most famous illustration of dinosaurs ever. It wasn’t until recently that I knew who created the mural and where it is located, but from a young age I had its dinosaurs burned into my mind from many reproductions in books, magazines, and educational films. Take a look at a detail here… I guarantee you’ve encountered it somewhere before.

The mural gained its wide fame from a fold-out spread in Life magazine. The work took Zallinger four years to complete and is 16 feet high by 110 feet long. Last year it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Biologically, much of it has been shown to be erroneous. The dinosaurs are static, have a slow-moving heaviness to their bodies, and a solemn air fit for a religious work from the Renaissance. In fact, the dark colors and deep focus give an Italian Renaissance feel to the whole work; this is what makes it stand out so many years later in people’s minds. It’s a haunting snapshot of a fictional past. If Raphael knew of dinos, this is how he would’ve painted them.

Charles R. Knight’s work is more accurate, and his painting of a T. Rex confronting a Triceratops is another key work of dinosaur visualization, making this Cretaceous Era one-on-one the most famous of dinosaur clashes. This picture also looms large in my dino-dreams of childhood, when there was nothing better than a trip to the Natural History Museum on a Saturday afternoon. (I always rooted for the T. Rex in these fights.)

If you want more information on the history of dinosaur art, definitely take a look at Paleoimagery: The Evolution of Dinosaurs in Art.