Charles R. Knight
Illustration
From Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould (originally in National Geographic)
Illustration
From Dinosaurs Past and Present: Volume I by Bakker, Callison, Hallett and Gillette (painting at the American Museum of Natural History)

In 1942, National Geographic published a series of pictures covering the history of life, starting with the Cambrian Period more than 500 million years ago, and ending with the emergence of modern man. To illustrate the history of life, the magazine chose Charles R. Knight.

From the 1890s through the 1950s, Knight shaped the public's perception of dinosaurs — and many other prehistoric life forms — probably more than anyone else. Yet he wasn't really a scientist. Knight was simply an illustrator, a native New Yorker trained as a commercial artist, who was passionate about nature. His father worked for a banking house owned by the Morgans of J.P. fame, and the famous banker later sponsored some of Knight's murals.

Oddly, his first steady job was with a church-decorating firm, but in his free time, Knight visited the Central Park Zoo where he regularly sketched the lively occupants. Slower and smellier animals awaited in the taxidermy department at the American Museum of Natural History. When the scientists asked him to sketch a long-extinct mammal based on its fossilized skeleton, the produced such a fine sketch that they started sending a steady stream of work his way. His talent eventually attracted the attention of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who oversaw the whole museum. Besides the American Museum of Natural History, his work has also been displayed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Carnegie Museum and the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian.

Knight collaborated with Osborn's mentor, E.D. Cope, as well as the paleontologist William Diller Matthew. Based on Matthew's lifelike articulations of fossil skeletons, Knight produced little clay models that he then cast in plaster. That step completed, he could move the casts around and examine the resulting lights and shadows. Then he painted the same animals, based partly on his cast and partly on his knowledge of living organisms.

In 1946, Knight both wrote and illustrated Life Through the Ages, years before other scientific illustrators started authoring their own books. The pictures were beautiful, though some of the narrative was a little quaint. "Stegosaurus was, no doubt, the stupidest member of a very moronic family," he wrote. Of T. rex, Knight remarked, "He was just an enormous eating machine with an insatiable appetite and with practically no brains." And Knight's assessment of dinosaurs in general was, "They had been in existence too long, for they were stupid, unadaptable, and unprogressive." Needless to say, some of Knight's ideas about droopy-tailed dinosaurs have since been overturned. Likewise, his other illustrations had occasional errors, such as misidentified animals in his pictures of the Cambrian. Yet these errors just reflected scientific thinking of the day.

Some of the first impressions Americans had of what dinosaurs might have looked like alive came from his work. Many of his dinosaur renditions certainly contributed to the view that the ancient reptiles were "stupid, unadaptable, and unprogressive." Ironically, some of Knight's earliest work was compatible with ideas that would emerge decades later. In 1897, he painted fast-moving Dryptosaurus dinosaurs in a high-energy fight. The "Dinosaur Renaissance" in the 1960s and 1970s would revive the image of dinosaurs shown in Knight's early work.

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