Book recalls life of man who, more than anyone, gives us the images we know of dinosaurs
Charles Knight is the man responsible for putting the picture of a dinosaur in your mind. Probably more than any other person in the world, he's the man who gave us the image of dinosaurs from which all current depictions are based. But whether he was right or wrong, it's probably impossible to ever know.
Probably each of us can call to mind a clear image of many dinosaurs.
That’s surprising, since no human ever set eyes on one. No cameras caught their image on film.
The images that we have derive largely from the work of one man: Charles R. Knight.
See a slideshow of Knight's drawings at Studio360.org.
A gifted wildlife painter at the end of the 19th century, Knight was on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. The museum’s president sent him to soak up the current knowledge on paleontology from the eminent fossil hunter Edward Drinker Cope, who was dying.
Knight emerged from his studies with images of the dinosaurs so lifelike, you can practically smell their breath. He painted murals in America’s biggest natural history museums and helped shift the presentational style from trays full of bones to environments that attempted to recreate the world of eons past.
Notwithstanding some changes in the science, Knight’s images hold up today as our best imaginings of these creatures.
And it was those images that influenced the pop culture of the 20th century.
Richard Milner, author of , details how they crept into representations like Gertie the dinosaur, the star of the first cartoon movie; a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle; the blockbuster ; all the way down the evolutionary ladder to the big purple dinosaur on TV.
Perhaps Knight did his work too well, inspiring a fetish for these extinct creatures. But paleontologist Paul Olsen says it was essential for the development of science.
“When you can't see the animal alive in front of you, you have to have some kind of mental model of what it's like — and that is in fact what an artist does ... If you don't communicate the information, it does not exist," Olsen said.
PRI's Peabody Award-winning "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" from WNYC is public radio's smart, surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will get stuck in your ear.