Good Life

Mineralogical society’s presentation will celebrate life of prehistoric animal painter Charles R. Knight

Three Smilodons (saber-toothed cats), vultures with 16-foot wingspans and primitive horses (background) are depicted in “La Brea Tarpits” by Charles R. Knight.
Three Smilodons (saber-toothed cats), vultures with 16-foot wingspans and primitive horses (background) are depicted in “La Brea Tarpits” by Charles R. Knight. Photo provided

Next week, the Nittany Mineralogical Society will host a presentation on renowned paleoartist Charles R. Knight. The talk, “Charles R. Knight: Art and Geology,” will focus on Knight’s life and vast contribution to the world of paleontology through his art.

Knight, who died in 1953, was the first artist we know of to study fossils and skeletal remains and then create complete renderings of what these now-extinct animals might have looked like as they reigned over the Earth. For this reason, Knight often is referred to as the father of paleoart, and his work can be found in books, zoos, museums and even in Hollywood films. According to retired geologist Charles E. Miller, Jr., one of the presenters at the event, films “The Lost World” (1925) and “King Kong” (1933) depended on Knight’s paintings of dinosaurs in order to re-create them in those films. Knight and his work also have been the subjects of articles in Scientific American magazine.

Rhoda Knight Kalt, granddaughter of Knight, also will speak at the event, talking about her grandfather’s life and work. Knight, who was legally blind, developed a love of art and wildlife at an early age and never let his vision problems stop him from pursuing his true passion.

“He started as an artist as a very young child. He loved zoos and animals from the time he was first taken there, and he began drawing at the age of about 10 years old,” Kalt said. “He loved drawing and then painting. It was a passion all his life.”

Knight’s first professional drawing assignment came from the American Museum of Natural History. Henry Fairfield Osborn, then-president of the museum, asked him first to draw one of its fossil finds and then asked Knight to paint a pre-historic mammal from only looking at and studying its skeleton.

“His prehistoric mammals became his passion,” Kalt said. “Much later, painting and bringing alive dinosaurs also became his passion. And thus began a lifetime of studying the latest fossil findings and bringing these wonderful creatures alive through his drawings, paintings and murals.”

While art and geology might seem like a strange combination, Miller said that the opposite is true.

“Art and geology is not an odd combination at all. Charles R. Knight proved just that. For example, his paintings and murals commonly show natural settings of subject animals or plants. These are iconic as well as informative,” Miller said. “Reconstructing paleo, that is, ancient, environments provides a broader, more complete understanding of the subjects.”

Even today, scientists and artists still consider Knight’s renderings of pre-historic subjects to be accurate, and his work and influence live on.

“Knight’s artwork is in at least 31 museums, libraries, and zoos in this country and in France. This is a testament to his influence,” Miller said. “I can still relate to the interest and excitement of seeing his artwork as a young boy. Popularizing pre-historic life is a great legacy he has left us.”