It’s hard to not have a personal connection to Charles Knight’s artwork, whether you know you do or not. In elementary school, I built a formidable dinosaur diorama on the in-shelf niche of my parents’ living room – build-it-yourself tyrannosauruses and stegosaurus skeletons traipsed across a Cretaceous landscape, completed by a faux philodendron. The entire scene was backstopped with Knight’s famous 1897 Brontosaurus mural, familiar to many paleo-enthusiasts.
Even paleo-greats like Henry Fairfield Osborn and Stephen Jay Gould admired Knight’s work for decades and whether it’s museum murals or children’s books, many of us are introduced to the paleo-world through Charles Knight. However, there are interesting subtleties of Knight’s work that operate beyond a simple cultural strata of familiarity.
In Knight’s dinosaur and Pleistocene scenes, his art opens up an interesting space. In landscapes of the early nineteenth century, landscape artists painted idealized, romanticized, and, even somewhat faithful representations of what they were looking at. But how would one do that for a landscape long-since extinct? End-of-the nineteenth century landscape impressionists’ softened lines and colors allowed for a bit of imagined space – such techniques would be useful in the reconstructions and abstractions of a paleoenvironment. In his landscape paintings, extinct species live in idyllic, Eden-esque environs. The lines are soft, the colors muted, and the tone transcendental.
Knight’s work with prehistoric man, however, offers a more complicated narrative of hominin evolution. In some scenes, there is a similar softening of line and color. In other sketches, there is a dark, starkness that strips the hominin of humanity. Knight’s sketch of the Old Man of La Chapelle (dated 1909) is cold, firm, and stiff. Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, (dated 1920), is warm, yielding, and invites the viewer into the scene through the front-and-center point of view.
There’s a subtle categorization of “human” and “not-human” juxtaposed between the Cro-Magnon, as a predecessor to modern humans, and Neanderthals – following the scientific paradigms of the early twentieth-century. Even the Neanderthals in other pieces that are in color show the same bold, decisive lines. (For those interested in Neanderthal portraiture, check out Portrait of a Neanderthal as a Young Hominin.)
The landscapes and murals of Charles Knight act as cultural touchstones, even as the science behind them evolves.