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Time Traveler: The Art of Charles R. Knight

Artist Charles R. Knight drew on his vast experience depicting living animals to bring prehistoric creatures to life—a practice that made him keenly aware of the finality of extinction



Charles R. Knight

You may not know his name, but chances are that you have seen his work. Brooklyn-born artist Charles R. Knight (1874–1953) produced paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs, mam­moths and prehistoric humans that adorn the great natural history museums in the U.S. His dinos have appeared as toys, stamps and comics, as well as in books and scientific journals on paleontology. One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s illustrators swiped them for his 1912 novel The Lost World. Some even became movie stars, directly inspiring sequences in the 1933 King Kong and, more indirectly, Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park. Hollywood’s master monster animator Ray Harryhausen, creator of the dinosaurs in the 1966 One Million Years B.C. and other cult classics, based his stop-motion puppets on paint­ings and sculptures by Knight.

Knight is best known for his depictions of long-extinct beasts, but he was first and foremost a wildlife artist—an underappre­ciated aspect of his career. Over the course of his lifetime he created nearly 1,000 portraits of living animals representing 800 species—an astonishingly prodigious output. His prehistoric reconstructions benefited from years of keen observations and detailed anatomical studies of modern-day animals. Painting portraits of living lions, tigers, snow leopards and house cats sharpened his portrayal of a snarling saber-toothed cat defending its kill from a giant, condorlike vulture at the La Brea tar pits. Sketches of zoo elephants prepared him to breathe life into woolly mammoths marching across a snowscape in Ice Age France.

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