Episode 158 – Charles R. Knight

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There was a time when artwork depicting ancient animals was uncommon and even unexpected. The modern world of paleoart owes its existence in large part to an animal artist who became perhaps the most influential paleoartist of all time: Charles R. Knight.

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The Artist Who Saw Through Time

Paleoart is artwork that depicts ancient life, typically as accurately as possible. Today, paleoart is a popular and thriving subset of scientific illustration and an integral part of how paleontologists communicate scientific ideas about life of the past.

Charles R. Knight was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1874. This was not long after Charles Darwin first published his ideas about evolution, and shortly before the famous Bone Wars began in earnest. During Knight’s childhood, paleontologists were discovering and learning more and more about life of the past, and there was growing interest in communicating these ideas to a broader audience.

The “hell pig” Entelodon (at the time known as Elotherium). This is the first artwork of an ancient animal Knight was commissioned to do.

Knight was an avid artist from a young age, often sketching the animals he saw in zoos and museums. His earliest jobs involved creating artwork of animals for church windows and magazines. He was especially interested in understanding animal anatomy and behavior, and he used that knowledge to create incredibly accurate artwork.

In 1894, he was asked for the first time to use his talents to imagine an animal known only from bones, a pig-like entelodont. He did such a good job that he was soon commissioned as artist and consultant for a redesign of the paleontology exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, NY. These exhibits were among the first attempts to create informative paleontology displays for a public audience, and the murals Knight created would go on to be some of the most famous pieces of paleoart ever made.

Among Knight’s most famous and influential artwork are his paintings of dinosaurs.
Here is Brontosaurus (left) and “Leaping Laelaps” (right).
Of course, by today’s standards, much of Knight’s dinosaur art is a bit outdated – his dinos often drag their tails or have incorrect proportions – but in his time these were among the best scientific depictions of dinosaurs in the world.

During his life, Knight would create incredible artwork for museums all around the United States. So skillful was his work, and so unique was his position as the country’s premier paleoartist, that his art would have a major influence on paleontology for the next century, laying the groundwork for later artists, inspiring fascinating in all audiences, and popularizing some of the most enduring tropes in the depiction of ancient life, such as the now-outdated image of brontosaurs wading in swamps or the now-iconic showdown between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. Imitations, derivatives, and homages of Knight’s work have appeared in everything from children’s books to films like The Lost World and King Kong.

Knight preferred to draw animals by observing them in life. When it came to ancient creatures, he would sculpt lifelike models of them and use them to inspire his artwork, paying close attention to how they interacted with light.
Knight’s paleoart was more than just dinosaurs. These are all Ice Age murals, and his other works included ancient environments from all times and places, as far back as two billion years.
Knight wasn’t just a paleoartist. He continued to create artwork of modern animals throughout his life.
Top: Chinese Tiger Hunters at Bay.
Bottom: This 10-dollar bill, issued in 1901, features Knight’s artwork of a bison.

Still today, Knight’s artwork is on display at museums and other institutions all over the country, and his granddaughter, Rhoda, continues to share stories about her grandfather, “Toppy,” and maintain resources like the Charles Knight website.

Learn More

The World of Charles R. Knight includes a biography page, a gallery of his work, and plenty more.

This episode of Brain Scoop includes a discussion of Knight and other artists.

A lot of info for this episode came from the book, Charles Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time


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