EXPLOITS: Prehistoric Inspiration


From “The Age of Reptiles” by Rudolph Zallinger

I might not be able to say just why I became a painter, striving to create works of art. But in retrospect I can see the harbingers throughout my life that pointed out the direction I was going to be heading in.

Among my earliest memories is the collection of nature books my parents had. My favorite had a special feature: a page that folded out to show an entire vista of dinosaurs, placed in a fantastic prehistoric landscape.

I loved dinosaurs. I spent hours staring at that image.

I dreamed of becoming a paleontologist and hunting for fossils, because from what I understood paleontologists were those people who got to pay the most attention to dinosaurs-or at least, the fragments that remained of them.

Only much later did I find out that image I obsessed over then was a reproduction of “The Age of Reptiles,” a celebrated mural painted high on the walls of the Yale Peabody Museum. It was the work of artist Rudolph Zallinger; he created it in the 1940s, using the classical fresco technique of painting directly into a surface of moist plaster.

The mural measures 16 feet by 11o feet. Zallinger methodically prepared for the work with detailed sketches and preparatory drawings, but gave a moving description of what happened when he went to start on the actual fresco.

Zallinger wrote, “…at the end of October 1943 I mounted the top platform to start a line-drawing version of the whole composition. Vividly etched in my memory is my trepidation as I scanned that endless wall while holding a slender stick of charcoal in my hand, about to begin my work with a tool seemingly so inadequate to the task. However, I regained my composure and began what turned out to be a three-and-one half year project.”

Rudolph F. Zallinger working on The Age of Reptiles mural.

Rudolph Zallinger at work

These days our ideas have changed on the nature of the beasts; scientific advances now make the depictions of that mural inaccurate. But there is no denying their triumphant presence as works of art.

I can see now what moved me about dinosaurs could not have been satisfied in retrieving crumbling bones. I doubt I have the patience, meticulousness and endurance the field work of a fossil collecting scientist would have required.

What transfixed me from earliest consciousness was seeing those fabulous monsters shown as if they were alive.

Massive, muscular, with beautifully colored hides gleaming in the sunlight. Sharp teeth and watchful eyes, looking as old and predatory as time itself, filling a lost world with their awesome presence.

Now there’s no way to see such animals in reality; no way to take a photograph of them. And don’t even mention the slick, unsatisfactory blobs of CGI that clutter up a recurring series of mindless pop movies.

But such is the power of art that long before I was born, one lone man climbed up a scaffold, and with brush and pigments, made those beasts live again.

I loved dinosaurs. But what really fascinated me was a painting.


Terrible Lizards, Beautiful Art



13 thoughts on “EXPLOITS: Prehistoric Inspiration

  1. This is a good story, Richard, vividly told. The mural looks incredible and makes me think of my early days in Pittsburgh (early 1960s, yikes), going with my art teacher on Saturdays to Carnegie museum to draw the dinosaurs.There, as backdrops for some of the skeletons they had, were also some incredible murals. There was even one panorama on a moving scroll which moved by increments throughout the day, revealing a changing vista of prehistoric plants and skies.

    Decades later, I revisited the museum and went straight to one of the skulls I had drawn in pastels over the period of several lessons. Proving that it is true that what you draw somehow becomes a part of you.

  2. Thanks! What you draw becomes a part of you, I like that. For me, It was Washington DC’s Museum of Natural History that housed the bones I visited again and again-never got to draw them in person though.

  3. I had no idea that image was a mural. I thought it was just an illustration. The arms on the Triceratops are much to small, I think, but that makes him unique. Dinosaur renderings were also an early preoccupation of mine, and even now I marvel at the creativity and execution. And now, when anything can be art, probably the least accepted art form would be dinosaur paintings. For that reason alone it would be a great idea to make a dinosaur painting. Hope you’ll do it.

  4. I enjoyed the change of tone. Not vitriolic! Then I will share, just like you did. What made me an art historian? My first pornography was found on the very low shelf of our library at home. I was 10 year old and living up in French northern Ontario (a Canadian province by the way). The title of that book was “Les chefs d’oeuvres du Louvre” (The Louvre greatest works) in which I saw the Venus of Milo, the Nude Naja by Goya, and more Venuses. All were in black and white. The first breast I caressed was my “snow Venus of Milo”. Then, when I was 13, thanks to a Toronto gallerist who braved up north 6 hours of white tornado (a heavy snow storm with lots of wind), he ended up in our back yard with his Ford LTD station wagon full of great Canadian art. Then, I saw abstraction for the first time… all these great art experiences gave me the taste of art and history, hence my Ph.D. in Art history form the Sorbonne in Paris.

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