Paleoart: Visions of a Prehistoric Past



Adolphe François Pannemaker, The Primitive World, 1857. Courtesy of Taschen.


Next month, Taschen will publish Paleoart: Visions of a Prehistoric Past, an in-depth look at an art form that, by its very nature, imagines—in paintings and engravings, murals and sculptures—the lives of beasts from a bygone age, fusing together fact and fiction, science and whimsy. Culled from private collections, obscure archives, and the collections of natural-history museums, the book’s artwork spans from 1830 to 1990 and was selected by the writer Zoë Lescaze and the artist Walton Ford. In the essay below, which serves as the book’s preface, Ford writes of his own fascination with paleoart and how the idea for the book came about. 

Like many suburban boys in the sixties, I had a childhood infused with images of prehistory. I was obsessed with the stop-motion dinosaurs in the rarely broadcast 1933 movie King Kong, savoring glimpses of their obscure forms through the bluish haze of our rabbit-eared black-and-white television. I pored over popular-science books such as Time-Life’s Nature Library series and The World We Live In, searching for images of long-extinct animals and early hominids. I collected plastic dinosaurs, carefully razoring away their unsightly seams and painting them with what I thought were more realistic reptilian stripes and spots. I hid from the oppressions of my school, neighborhood, and father behind fragrant boxwoods, and arranged these beloved miniature monsters in jungle tableaux of prehistoric conflict. Desperate to see into the deep past, I was drunk with paleoart. What I didn’t know in 1968 was that such primeval imagery was barely over a hundred years old.

Paleoart is the contemporary art of reconstructing the prehistoric past, a visual tradition that began in England in 1830. The mental picture we have of, say, a Tyrannosaurus rex, is the result of paleoart, a practice that begins with fossil bones. After paleontologists discover and excavate the remains of a prehistoric animal, an artist will use this skeletal evidence to imagine how the living creature once looked, adding the muscles, skin, texture, and color. If the paleoartist is drawing or painting the animal, he or she will set the reconstructed beast in a primordial habitat, complete with the appropriate plants and landscape. The resulting image of the prehistoric animal in its environment is a work of paleoart.

A few years ago, I had the idea that there should be a beautiful, full-color book on the history of paleoart. It was only when the project was underway that I realized just how little known this genre was. When I mention paleoart in conversation, eyes light up, but usually for all the wrong reasons. Whomever I am with will launch into an animated discussion of the miraculous sophistication of the cave paintings of Lascaux, or of Werner Herzog’s ravishing and unhinged film about Chauvet. This is when I’m forced to ruin everything. It’s confusing, I mumble, but paleoart is not cave painting … you’re thinking of Paleolithic art. The terms are, of course, easily confused, but Paleolithic art (i.e., a cave painting) was created by prehistoric humans, whereas paleoart (i.e., a painting of a T. rex) is created by modern people attempting to reconstruct prehistory.

Paleoart is often found in natural-history museums and at universities, in the form of sweeping murals in fossil halls, explanatory paintings and sculptures accompanying skeletons, and dazzling decorative elements. Paleoart has also been created for textbooks, encyclopedias, popular-science magazines, chocolate cards, and children’s books. The lines between entertainment and science, kitsch and scholarship, are often vague. Today, many children grow up surrounded by plush and plastic toys, stickers, and temporary tattoos that represent long-extinct dinosaurs that no human ever laid eyes on. The popular acceptance of these representations is complete; we all take visions of the prehistoric world for granted.

In 1899, the French artist Jean-Marc Côté created a collection of colorful cigarette cards depicting life in the year 2000. The cards depict a fully automated life of luxury, complete with multiarmed robotic hairdressers, batwing aerial police, and spacious submarine ocean liners. The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who collected these cards, pointed out that until around 1800, such predictions did not and could not exist. Religious texts might prophesy the end of days, but, in the meantime, everyday life—planting and harvesting, wars and pestilence, births and deaths—ticked by for generations without anyone imagining a radically different future. It was only with the introduction of the steam engine that people in the West came to expect perceptible technological change within their lifetime. “A new kind of curiosity developed, perhaps the first really new kind in recorded history,” Asimov wrote. “It was suddenly possible to ask, ‘what would the future be like?’ and expect a rational answer.”

This futurism was not the only “new kind of curiosity” to arise in the nineteenth century. At roughly the same time that machinery was encouraging this novel curiosity about the future, the new field of paleontology was shattering the way people thought about the past. The fossilized remains of huge extinct reptiles were being discovered and reconstructed. It was suddenly possible to ask, “What did the prehistoric past look like?” and expect a rational scientific response. The attempts to answer this question gave rise to a bizarre and unprecedented pictorial tradition as outrageous and imaginative as the better known vintage visions of the future. When I first imagined Paleoart: Visions of a Prehistoric Past, I thought it would be a simple task to gather together the paintings of the prehistoric world familiar to me in my youth, such as Rudolph Zallinger’s famous fresco with its bloated T. rex, Zdenek Burian’s images of grungy Neanderthals, and Charles Knight’s cheerfully violent picture of pouncing Laelaps. I knew that in my lifetime, new science had changed the way we look at these beasts, that many images of prehistory I had known in childhood were now obsolete and were increasingly being discarded. I felt these images had artistic value, even as their scientific value waned. I felt the need for a paleoart book that was more about the art and less about the paleo.

The author Zoë Lescaze has dug much deeper into this subject than I could have imagined. She has uncovered, researched, and documented vast museum murals in Moscow, radiant oil paintings hidden inside dark storerooms in the Czech Republic, and delicate watercolors tucked within the drawers of British archives. She has brought to light ink drawings, mosaics, lithographs, low-relief ceramics, collectible cards, and frescoes that have never before been published. She has written a graceful and exciting two-hundred-year history of paleoart in which she introduces such unlikely characters as a psychopathic fossil collector, an almost totally blind painter, egotistical rival scientists, and an artist who claimed he could see dead dogs. Lescaze has focused on the down-and-dirty years before digital imagery changed the way paleoart is made, illuminating an era when prehistoric monsters were created by the paint-smudged hands of artists inside cluttered studios. Paleoart: Visions of a Prehistoric Past is a book brimming with images born in the heat of startling discovery, urgent works of first contact and of handcrafted time travel. The book is like a twofold time machine from a science-fiction comic I would have loved as a child. It allows us to go back in time to see what going back in time used to look like. Strap yourself in, and here we go!

Edouard Riou (engraved by Laurent Hotelin and Alexandre Hurel), The Ichthyosaur and the Plesiosaur, 1863. Courtesy of Taschen.

Philip Henry Delamotte, Model-Room at the Crystal Palace, 1853.

Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, Tarbosaurus and armored dinosaur, c. 1955. © Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS.

Zdenek Burian, Mammoth (Elephas primigenius), 1941.

Ely Kish, Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, c. 1976. © Canadian Museum of Nature

Published with permission of Taschen.

Walton Ford is a painter whose work has been widely exhibited, including at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.