The art of extinction: Why a dinosaur painted in Russia looks different from one painted in France


Art historian Zoë Lescaze’s new book originated from one belief: that our “most dearly held notions about the prehistoric world are artistic inventions.”

Published by Taschen, Lescaze’s “Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past” features more than 200 stunning works by artists attempting to render dinosaurs based on fossil records and other scientific materials available to them in whatever decade or era they happened to be working.

What makes these works particularly fascinating, Lescaze said, is that the images are very much informed by the cultural setting of the artists. A dinosaur painted in Russia may appear quite different from the same dinosaur painted in occupied France or in South America.

“The bones are a blank slate on which artists can channel their cultural preoccupations,” Lescaze said, adding that artistic movements also come into play. The book features dinosaurs painted in various styles including Art Nouveau and Fauvism.

“The Primitive World,” Adolphe François Pannemaker, 1857. (Taschen)

Lescaze discovered that a huge amount of work created behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Russia had never been reproduced or professionally photographed. This led her to one of her favorite artists in the book, Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov. She came to love his work because he used “extremely audacious shades of marigold and saffron, and the scientific aspect seemed to be an afterthought.”

“Mammoth (Elephas primigenius)” Zdenek Burian, 1941. (
(Yuri Palmin /)

Paleoart has proved to be a notably undervalued genre. A new fossil discovery can instantly render older bodies of work obsolete.

“I saw paintings by Charles Knight, who is probably one of the most famous paleoartists, that only existed because museum employees salvaged them from dumpsters,” Lescaze said.

Tarbosaurus and armored dinosaur by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, circa 1955. (Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS)
(Yuri Palmin /)



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