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 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