Review: ‘Charles R. Knight’ by Richard Milner

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Charles R. Knight
The Artist Who Saw Through Time

Richard Milner
Abrams: $40, 180 pp.

Although his is not a household name, Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) created paintings of dinosaurs, saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths and other prehistoric fauna that captured the popular imagination. His murals in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County influenced the look of the dinosaurs in scores of Hollywood films, from “King Kong” and “One Million Years B.C.” to “Fantasia”; the prehistoric diorama in Disneyland; and the herds of plastic dinosaurs that baby boomers played with as kids.

Richard Milner draws on Knight’s own writings to present a lively, well-researched portrait of an artist who often seems as eccentric as he was talented. As a boy, Knight interrupted one of his father’s uplifting bedtime stories with, “I’m tired of hearing about Jesus. Tell me about elephants.” He never lost his fascination with animals — living or extinct — and sketched them constantly.

Although he repeatedly refused a staff position at the American Museum of Natural History, Knight worked closely with its president, the formidable paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. Knight watched the museum’s taxidermists at work, studied anatomy and made small models of his subjects before painting them. His painstaking efforts produced what came to be regarded as the definitive restorations of many prehistoric animals.


Amazingly, the artist was legally blind for much of his life. Knight was severely myopic and astigmatic, and a childhood injury exacerbated his deteriorating eyesight. He worked primarily on small panels and used assistants to enlarge them into murals.

But for all his dedication, Knight was an impractical man and an outspoken critic of work he deemed inaccurate or inferior, complaining in letters to the editor thatGeorgia O’Keeffe’s celebrated “Ram’s Head” actually depicted a goat’s skull, and that the unlovely statue of a short-faced bear at the La Brea Tar Pits “gives me the creeps.” (The handsome frieze on the Page Museum was partially inspired by Knight’s work.)

Recent discoveries about dinosaur metabolism and physiology have rendered some of Knight’s work obsolete: Early 20th century paleontologists didn’t know some dinosaurs had warm blood and/or feathers. A generation of artists led by Mark Hallett and Stephen Czerkas have offered new visions of more agile, colorful dinosaurs. But Knight’s paintings continue to enchant viewers — and will as long as dinosaurs retain their fascination for our recently arrived species.

Solomon’s recent works include “The Art of ‘Toy Story 3’” and “Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”