Paleoart: Painting the Land Before Time

Paleoart: Painting the Land Before Time

Emily: We’re undergoing some massive changes here at the Field Museum in the next year thanks to a generous donation from the Kenneth C. Griffin charitable fund. Among other things, we’re relocating and updating the pose of our star T. Rex Sue to reflect new research on these animals. T. Rexes have a set of belly ribs called Gastralia but nobody could quite figure out how they were supposed to articulate with the rest of the skeleton. Now we know, so instead of looking like this, we think T. Rexes looked a little bit more like this. And that got me thinking a lot about how important art is to our understanding of prehistoric life as well as the artists who have worked here at the Field Museum over the years. But digging up information about our past artists in Geology was no simple feat. I contacted partner museums from around the United States and Europe, sought out family members of the artists, and scoured our archives for information and personnel records. I made use of more interlibrary loan requests than any other time in my life. The work from these artists touched millions of people yet the Information about two of the three was virtually unknown and I wanted to change that. So without further ado, I bring you the Field Museum’s artists of prehistory. One of the first prehistoric artists the field museum hired was Charles Knight. He’s also by far the best known. Numerous books and galleries have been devoted to his life’s work and talents. Part of the realism in his studies came from his observations of animals in life. He spent a lot of time at zoos observing and drawing the animals. And when it came to painting the prehistoric, Knight went to great lengths to create three-dimensional models of his subjects, which he then would take outside to see how the sunlight played off of their features. Between 1927 and 1931, Knight was commissioned by the Field Museum to create 28 gigantic murals to chronicle life on Earth, which would line the walls in our new Hall of Fossil Vertebrates. They’ve become his most iconic series with a few standouts like T-rex vs Triceratops, which inspired numerous artists and filmmakers at the time. Like the Lost World and the scene in Fantasia where the T-rex was going after the Stegosaurus, even though they lived 84 million years apart… But anyway, one of the most incredible things about Knight’s literally massive accomplishments was that he was legally blind. When he was six. He was hit in one eye with rock sustaining permanent corneal damage and later developed an astigmatism in the other. So the murals for The Field were completed with his left eye just inches from the canvas. But what I love about nights paintings is how he was able to artfully convey the passage of time the majority of his works are still on display in our evolving planet exhibition And if you look at the murals in sequence ranging from the oldest scenes to the newest you’ll notice that the image has become clearer over time, the more ancient the subject that hazier the memory until everything comes into sharp focus with bolder colors in the Pleistocene. Among knights admires was author Ray Bradbury who said when we think of these beasts, these monsters that lived in the world for so many hundreds of thousands of years, and then vanished, and we think we’re going to be here for a long time Well if the dinosaurs could vanish from the world we have to be careful with ourselves But when you do excellent things you live forever so the work that Charles R. Knight did it’s there forever And it’s going to stay forever. Knight was followed by two other artists who were ultimately much less recognized But similarly talented each with their own unique personal story and style the first was John Conrad Hansen who was chronically shy and somewhat of an enigma. Having immigrated to the United States from Trondheim, Norway, when he was just 12, he lived with his mother in Minneapolis until her death in 1928, when he was 59. In the following years he moved around eventually making his way to Chicago where he worked for a calendar company And painted church altar pieces. Then at an age when most people are settling into retirement Hansen decided on a second career. He contacted The Field in 1940 and was hired as an artist when he was 71 and what’s truly intriguing about his role of paleo artist is that he didn’t believe these extinct creatures had lived. Hansen’s religious convictions and his belief in the great Biblical Flood didn’t mesh with the animals he was painting here And so he referred to them simply as the objects. In spite of that his imagination in depicting ancient animals was World-class and many of his paintings hung with the articulated skeletons in the fossil Hall for many years He worked for the field until a month before his death in 1952 at the age of 84 Shortly before Conrad Hansen’s death another artist was hired by the geology department. Maidi Wiebe was born in Germany in 1922, but not much about her early life is known even to her family she grew up during the most vicious years of World War II and undoubtedly was impacted by the experience. While her family certainly endured hardships, they were lucky to be German, she was able to pursue an university education in Poland in 1943 but was interrupted toward the end of the war as the Soviet Army approached their town. Maidi and her family were evacuated with other German refugees and after the war in 1946 she reenrolled at the University of Frankfurt, determined to study art. Wiebe had a sense of independence that was still pretty unusual for women at that time. In 1951 she departed for Chicago and later that year was hired enthusiastically by curators at the Field Museum who recognized her talents as an exceptional naturalist and artist. She created figures for scientific papers, illustrated a number of children’s books carried on Hanson’s work painting Prehistoric life and created scale models to accompany the mounted skeletons on display. Some of her work can still be seen around the museum today Especially in the geology cases on the second floor where she illustrated geologic phenomena including impact craters from meteorites And it’s in these photographs of her looking so poised and polished but painting scenes of epic destruction that first piqued my interest In learning more about her. One of Wiebe’s biggest projects was designing and modeling new dinosaurs for display in our main Hall a Gorgosaurus Which came to be known as gorgeous George in the middle of eating a Lambeosaurus. When it was unveiled in 1956 gorgeous George was the first freestanding dinosaur mounted in any museum. Eugene Richardson who was the curator fossil invertebrates found it so remarkable that he wrote a poem about it, which was delivered upon its unveiling to the public. Maidi illustrations and models played a big part in breathing life into the project and her miniatures were on displaying next to the mounted skeletons until they were eventually removed from the hall in 1990. The dinosaur skeletons were remounted to display a more modern anatomical understanding and are still on display in our Evolving Planet Exhibition. Maidi’s work continued until 1962 when she left the museum at the age of 40 But she carried a love of art in the natural world throughout the rest of her life Many things have changed in the years since The Field first commissioned these artists to help tell the story of life on Earth. new research is regularly reshaping the way we interpret extinct life-forms and today while we might not point to Knights or rubies depictions of Cretaceous apex predators as the most modern representations of them that doesn’t mean their art has lost its value it’s through the work of these artists that researchers were best able to communicate the progress of science and bring our ancient world back to life. Come and see the Gorgassaurus tal his life Though somewhat thinner standing in the hall before us interrupted in his dinner. 100 million years ago He found a Lambie assort to munch on something stopped his feast and so he never had that final luncheon long ago the date Cretaceous Gorgosaurus roamed Alberta ever hungry fierce voracious seeking smaller prey to murder Then he died became a fossil buried near the Red Deer River past the years asleep and docile giving not a jerk or quiver Found and shipped to the museum with that meal he never tasted here He stands and here you see him Not a bone on him was wasted other skeletons of his book must be held erect by crutches Not a post to seen on this Hulk. Just the floor is all he touches Engineers may be well baffled by the structure we’re reporting. here he stands without a scaffold Gorgassaurus self-supporting It still has brains on it

100 thoughts on “Paleoart: Painting the Land Before Time

  1. Missed videos on this channel. I know you have the podcasts but its not the same to see your face and what you're talking about. I hope this channel becomes more regular in updating cuz its honestly one of my favs.

  2. Emily is a wonderful speaker, with a near-perfect balance of clarity, enthusiasm, and vocal modulation. I really appreciate great story-tellers!

  3. Just gotta say…some time ago u had recommended reading "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge" by Jamie James and I just now finished it and LOVED it! Thanks for that. 🙂

  4. This video is amazing and fascinating. As an animal lover, biology major and library worker this was the best of all my worlds! Yay paleo art and yay interlibrary loan!

  5. Things like this really make me wish I could afford to go to museums and the like. Thank you for bringing information and overall scientific experience to those who are unable to go and see it for themselves. Your videos always keep my interest.

  6. Really enjoyed this video. I only knew Charles R. Knight so getting to know the two others were a joy.
    Keep up the good work 😉

  7. I’ve been feeling a little down these past couple days but your videos do not fail to cheer me up, even if only for a little bit.

  8. Gotta love how Gorgeous George original mount had it's gastralia and furcula articulated in almost the same position as Sue's new mount.

    Tyrannosaurids were THICC.

  9. Such a great video; the amount of effort you put in shows!! It was really great to learn about all those talented artists and the interesting lives they led.

  10. This is such a great video.

    If people want to learn more I believe PBS eons has a video about general trends in paleoart and the book all the yesterday's takes commonly know dinosaurs and reimagines. It talks about issues in the paleoart world, and why it's difficult to reconstruct extinct beingd, and in the final few pages it reimagines modern animals while pointing out these problems.

  11. This video would be so useful for our past debate about whether science or art plays a bıgger role on the developement of civilization.
    (My team was defending art)

  12. Great video, Emily. Thanks for sharing all of that very interesting information with us. Your dramatic reading of that poem was really fun, too.

  13. I had a book about paleontology when I was 5 that featured paintings by Knight that inspired me to pursue a career in the sciences (I ended up becoming a mathematician). I love knowing the back story behind those paintings now. Thank you!

  14. This is a really great video! Love all the historical research that went into it, and the stories about the artists. One of my faves from this year!

  15. Hey I have seen dat you had an verry cool contribution at the german TV by Galileo and I have found it verry interested and I am verry interested at emtomology

  16. I loved hearing about these artists! I especially enjoyed how you noted that even though these pieces don't necessarily reflect our modern understanding, they still serve as historical documents of sorts, chronicling our history of learning about these creatures!

  17. My institution is in the process of remounting fossils to represent more modern understandings of anatomy, as you put it. I'd love to see an episode about how that kind of research happens, and maybe about the feathered T rex debate.

  18. Very cool video, though a good portion of the best paleo art is outdated and inaccurate, it never ceases to be fascinating

  19. It's been a while since I've watched a Brain Scoop episode all the way to the very end for the "It still have brains on it" moment. Worth it, and this video in particular is wonderfully done. Thank you for this insight.

  20. Absolutely fantastic episode. I've loved the work of Charles R. Knight for a long time, and it was so cool to learn about these other artists I'd never heard of, but whose work I'd also seen and enjoyed. (that dunkleosteus though!!)

  21. ⛅Hi Sunshine, loved the video, you sexy thing, caught that too. May peace an prosperity be with you always. C-ya😎Bye!
    "✌💖🤗~🌞🌎⚬" …

  22. In 1966, when I was just 13 years old, I first encountered Knight's "T-Rex versus Triceratops" mural. It thrilled me for its realism. 37 years later I produced a painting of a Tyrannosaurus that was blown up into a life-size mural to accompany the Field Museum's traveling exhibit of "A T-rex Named Sue" at the Florida Museum of Natural History. A childhood dream come true!

  23. BTW Emily, Fantastic video! Great job. Interesting, informative and very well presented. Keep up the good work!

  24. It may be due to recency bias but I'm pretty sure this is a top 3 BrainScoop. It's easily my personal favorite.

  25. I! Love! This! Learning about the processes that go into making museums is fascinating to me. It would be really, really cool to hear from other folks around the Field (like the registrar or whomever writes exhibit text). Absolutely amazing! Thanks for sharing your hard work with us, Emily.

  26. Where would one go online to find these illustrations? Is there a central collection or is it strewn across the web?

  27. Yes! I want to be a paleontologist when I’m older, and this is an amazing covering of a field that gets almost no recognition, also lovely T. rex.

  28. Comment summary:
    10% say, nice video, 20% say good coverage of paleo art. The remaining 70% only watched the first three seconds of this and are scarred for life because T. rex changed, and now they need to vent about it.


  29. Those that make it up to the 3rd floor of the Field Museum can see a cabinet with Hansen and Wiebe paintings and models, located near the North Elevator.

  30. Emily – Fellow Female Scientist Simone Giertz needs your support! Where's your ladies at? Right here!

  31. The idea of a skeleton mount with no supporting structure is so beyond my comprehension I had to find out more. I found an article which explains the basics ( TL;DR Some of it is plaster cast with the support built into it and then the actual fossil material was drilled through or smashed up then reassembled D: It's a story which could really be its own full episode (if not already half told here).

  32. I never knew that about Knight's blindness, It's amazing that he managed to add so much detail to his work, I've always loved his T. rex vs. Triceratops painting. Great video!

  33. That’s kind of mind-blowing that Hansen spent years painting prehistoric animals even though he believed they never existed.

  34. This was a great video! Knight's work is beautiful! I enjoy Zdenek Burian's paintings as well.

  35. I enjoy your content so much! Emily's enthusiasm makes it easy to pay attention and remember. I enjoy listening to The Brain Scoop while I work too!

  36. Thanks for researching Maidi's life! I was intrigued by the case on the third floor. Nina Cummings told me that Maidi worked in the Museum store much later in her life and that she left the Museum when she got married.

  37. I appreciate so much your thorough investigation of the unknown artists, it is amazing to learn about people in history that not many know about. Thank you Emily for this super informative and excellent video. You're super awesome! <3 🙂

  38. Heh, there should be a museum for all the out-of-date museum artwork, and all the people who created it. People can go there to see featherless dinosaurs, and learn about how they were painted by people who didn't believe in them and the blind.

  39. No zdenek Burian? really dissapointing, but Amazing work anyways, paleoart does not only reflect how different we thought these incredible animals were, but they also show an outstanding level of creativity and imagination.

  40. So it turned out that my drawing in my younger age was closer to the real one than what scientist had pictured so far until now

  41. Hey .. do a storey about Scotty.. the largest T-rex ever discovered. Found in Saskatchewan Canada. Eastend, SK is the home of the original Scotty.


    So, first of all, I really had to laugh at this (meme), but minus the pizzas, what an awesome painting. (still kind fo funny).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *