Charles Knight: Prehistoric Visions of a
by Alexander Sherman, Strategic Planning
Like many of you, I grew up at the natural history museum. Not a week passed when I wasn't practicing the long Latin names of dinosaurs. In my memory, I can still recall every single Permian reptile and Cretaceous behemoth in New York's American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). After I returned from college, though, the museum had closed that area, and my childhood sanctuary had changed into something different.
There was evolution and walkways at different heights and windows overlooking the park . . . even new color on the walls. Changes in biological sciences and museum education had brought changes to the museum itself. But at-home-ness set in when I joyfully encountered a Charles Knight mural -- the same one I carried as a tattered postcard throughout my childhood. For many of us, Knight's murals embody the daydreams that natural history museums stir in us.
At the Field Museum of Natural History, Knight's famous battle between Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, painted in 1927, is so well loved that it has become the standard encounter for portraying the age of dinosaurs. Today, a Field Museum docent might point out inaccuracies in this vivid reconstruction. For example, T. rex never stood up with its tail on the ground that way; the balanced, feral position in which Sue crouches is probably more accurate. But no matter how the science changes, the drama and inspiration of Knight's murals remain true.
In 1896 at age 22, Knight met the paleontologist at the AMNH. Together, these two men would revolutionize museum displays. Freed from glass boxes and taxonomic categories, dinosaur fossils sprang out in true-to-life poses. In his own practice, Knight studied fossils closely and made dramatic sculptures from which he painted the murals.
I recently met Rhoda Knight Kalt, Knight's granddaughter and self-appointed keepsake of his legacy. She came to the Field in 1994 for the opening of Life Over Time, which combines contemporary interactive displays with the beautiful Knight murals commissioned decades ago. In addition to maintaining The World of Charles R. Knight web site, a compendium about Knight and his influence, Rhoda Knight Kalt can share hours of anecdotes about her grandfather, whom she called "Toppy." For example, he stayed at the Drake as he prepared The Field Museum's murals. Each day, very early, he would walk along the lake to the Museum. It was often so bitter and blustery that winter that his nose frosted over, a souvenir from our aptly named Windy City that he never forgot. Anyone who has made the trek can vouch for that.
In addition to the battle between T. rex and Triceratops and the mastodons shown in the photo, keep your eyes open for other favorites next time you visit the Museum, including the Apatosaurus in the Elizabeth Morse Genius Dinosaur Hall and the saber-tooth tiger in the last room of Life Over Time. You may get a fresh look at the beloved artist's work next year, for our library is planning a small exhibition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 1953.
Knight's inspiration has reached far and wide. Even King Kong took his cue from Knight's sketch of Bushman. Today, the vivacity of his artwork holds its own with computerized special effects and animated dinosaurs. Having inspired countless students to enter paleontology over the decades, Knight's dinosaur visions will live on.
© 2002 The Field Museum, In the Field, Winter 2002 - 2003, Volume 74, No. 1. Amy Cranch, Editor