Creating the Age of Reptiles

Why is an image of the Garden of Eden considered art, while an exquisitely detailed depiction of Jurassic life is derided as juvenile junk?

The reconstructed skeleton of a Deinonychus, representing the modern image of dinosaurs, in front of Rudolph Zallinger's 'Age of Reptiles' mural in Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author

Of all the dinosaur paintings ever composed, Rudolph Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles is one of the most influential. I can think of no other work of paleo-art that so intricately restores dinosaurs as they were known to us during the mid-20th century, simultaneously representing them within the ongoing march of time. In fact, this 110-foot-long, 16-foot-high illustration was so powerful that it inspired the scientists who would eventually create a more vibrant image of prehistoric life. Robert Bakker, one of the prime forces behind the “Dinosaur Renaissance” which replaced earlier images of drab, plodding dinosaurs, has often cited his encounter with a scaled-down version of Zallinger’s painting in Life magazine as the spark for his interest in dinosaurs. Later, as a graduate student at Yale University, Bakker saw the original in the school’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, but what he and other researchers were finding was startlingly different from Zallinger’s imagery. Based upon the changes that Bakker helped foment, it is no wonder that Bakker would later recall walking through the museum hall and thinking, “there’s something very wrong with our dinosaurs.

But we shouldn’t deride Zallinger’s work as an outdated vestige of crusty scholarship that saw dinosaurs as bloated reptiles. The Age of Reptiles mural is an artistic masterpiece and was, for its time, perhaps the most scientifically accurate representation of the Mesozoic world ever created. This combination of art and science took years to execute.

The mural’s story started with seaweed. That was what young Zallinger, a senior at Yale’s School of Fine Arts in 1942, spent a fair amount of his time illustrating for the director of the school’s natural history museum, Albert Parr. But that wasn’t the only project Parr had to offer art students. He wanted to fill his museum’s gray, empty wall spaces with representations of dinosaurs in the flesh, and when he asked arts professor Lewis York if he know of anyone skilled enough to create the restorations, York immediately tapped Zallinger on the basis of his student’s prior work for Parr. On March 1, 1942, Zallinger was made an official museum staff member so he could undertake the project full-time.

Zallinger himself explained what happened next in his painting’s official interpretive pamphlet, The Age of Reptiles: The Art and Science of Rudolph Zallinger’s Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale. Parr had originally wanted a series of individual paintings depicting different dinosaurs in the hall. As he pondered how to divide the wall space, however, Zallinger came up with a different idea—to use the whole wall to make a “panorama of time.” This way the different creatures could be placed into a continuity and would not represent isolated snippets of prehistory.

With the format established, Zallinger was rapidly schooled in vertebrate paleontology, paleobotany and anatomy by the museum’s experts. The animals had to be scientifically accurate, their environments appropriately stocked with plants from the right era, and the whole fossil cast had to fit together in an aesthetically pleasing style. Accuracy was of extreme important, but so was making the painting visually appealing to visitors. In 1943, Zallinger created an early sketch on paper of what he had in mind. Virtually all the prehistoric creatures that would appear in the final version were already present, albeit in different poses and positions.

The artist also faced the technical decision of how to execute the mural. Zallinger decided on a fresco secco, a classic method in which pigments are combined with egg and water and are painted on dried plaster that is moistened at the time of application. As Zallinger composed each successive rendition of the mural, the space he was going to paint on was prepared and covered in plaster. What is remarkable is how early Zallinger arrived at what became the final layout for his Mesozoic panorama. While the fine details of the plants and animals changed with each ever-more-detailed version, their general shapes and poses were established by the time Zallinger created a 1943 “cartoon” version of the mural on rag paper.

Strangely, one of the early paintings arguably became more famous than the actual mural itself. In the same year, prior to the start of the work on the wall, Zallinger created a small-scale version of the mural. This miniature version is the one that was later printed in books, on posters and as a part of other dinosaur memorabilia. If you have seen the Age of Reptiles before, chances are you saw it in this lower-resolution format.

Actual work on the wall mural began in October of 1943. It took three and a half years to complete. The finished detail is amazing. Working on a mural of such immense scale, Zallinger was able to beautifully render aspects as fine as individual dinosaur scales and the veins in a dragonfly’s wings. Visitors watched this process as it happened—the hall was open while Zallinger worked.

The Age of Reptiles is a true work of art. It is not, as W.J.T. Mitchell once suggested of paleo-art as a whole in The Last Dinosaur Book, kitsch or kid’s stuff. Zallinger’s mural was scientifically accurate for its day, but each individual piece fit into a flowing, unbroken landscape ultimately closed off by the grim reaper of extinction (represented by a churning volcano). The literal and abstract were combined into one accurate image. And this isn’t just me defending my beloved dinosaurs from what I feel is a muddled attack on scientific illustration from the humanities. In Zallinger’s account, art history expert Daniel Varney Thompson called the mural “the most important one since the 15th century.” Zallinger himself felt this might be an overstatement, but Thompson was not the only artistic critic with compliments.

The mural’s official pamphlet contains a coda by Yale’s own Vincent Scully, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture, about the artistic weight of Zallinger’s accomplishment. While someone like me looks at the painting and sees prehistory, Scully saw traditional artistic techniques and concepts (in particular those of 15th century painter Cennino Cennini). As Scully writes:

It is fair to suppose that Cennino d’Adrea Cennini of Colle di Val d’Elsa would have been surprised at the uses to which Zallinger put the techniques of painting he so lovingly described. No Adam and Eve but Eryops and Diplovertebron occupy the Carboniferous Garden in Zallinger’s mural, and long before the pharaoh, Tyrannosaurus is king.

While Scully does not dwell on this point, I think there is something significant here. Artists of past eras were often celebrated for creating images that were considered to come from history, whether religious or secular. Why is a carefully rendered image of the Garden of Eden art, while an exquisitely detailed depiction of Jurassic life is derided by some as juvenile junk? Are the arts so conceited that they cannot possibly allow natural science in for fear that the dinosaurs will overrun the place?

Not all renderings of dinosaurs are fine art, but there are some that we should not feel ashamed of calling fine art due to the skill required in the composition. In fact, restorations of prehistory may be even more difficult than what we traditionally consider fine art—the piece not only has to be executed within artistic conventions, but it must also speak to a natural reality. The Age of Reptiles is one such piece—a celebration of time that melds historic artistic concepts with the story of a lost world.

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