Fossil Connections: Robert Broom & Charles Knight

This is one of the most interesting snippets of paleo-connections that I’ve come across in my research for Famous Fossils, Hidden Histories.  Celebrated artist, Charles Knight, meets prominent paleoanthropologist, Dr. Robert Broom.  

A detail from Charles R. Knight’s giant mural “The Flint Workers of the River Vezere,” from 1920. The  painting of a Neanderthal family shows a scene at Le Moustier cave in southern France. (Bones of Neanderthals and stone artifacts were found in 1909.)

A detail from Charles R. Knight’s giant mural “The Flint Workers of the River Vezere,” from 1920. The  painting of a Neanderthal family shows a scene at Le Moustier cave in southern France. (Bones of Neanderthals and stone artifacts were found in 1909.)

When Dr. Robert Broom, the renowned paleontologist, arrived in  New York from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, I was allowed to sit between him and Toppy [Charles K. Knight] in a large limousine, as my grandfather accompanied Broom to a radio studio. 

Broom was then in his eighties, making his first trip to the United States.  He later wrote to me from Africa with an invitation for Toppy and me to visit him.  Sadly, my parents felt that I was too young at five to travel to the other side of the world without them.  Was I angry!

 

“Remembering ‘Toppy,’ My Grandfather” by Rhoda Knight Kalt, pp. pp. 7

Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time

Abrans, New York 2012

Pleisto-scenes and Paleo Art

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.

Brontosaurus , 1897. Charles Knight.

Brontosaurus, 1897. Charles Knight.

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.

Smilodon , 1905. Charles Knight.

Smilodon, 1905. Charles Knight.

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. 

Neanderthal Man , 1909. Charles Knight. (via Wellcome Images)

Neanderthal Man, 1909. Charles Knight. (via Wellcome Images)

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume,  1920. Charles Knight.

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, 1920. Charles Knight.

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.