The World of Charles R. Knight

Learn About Knight's Life

Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) is internationally recognized as the preeminent artist of both prehistoric animals and contemporary wildlife, through his paintings, drawings and sculpture. Annually, millions of people are exposed to Knight's work in major museums and institutional collections.

Knight was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 21st, 1874. Son of an English father with a passion for the outdoors, and a Yankee mother from Maine with a passion for gardening, Knight was exposed to the wonders of nature from an early age. Young Charles and his father, George Wakefield Knight, spent many hours hiking and fishing in the woods and lakes of New York. As a child, Knight developed a hunger for pictures and information about animals. George Knight satisfied his son's craving with books on natural history, and with trips to New York City's American Museum of Natural History, then a single red-brick building in the center of Manhattan Square. Knight began drawing when he was five or six years old. His earliest attempts at drawing animals were from pictures in books. In later years he abandoned that practice altogether, as he realized the importance of drawing from life.

At six years old, Knight was struck in the eye by a stone thrown by a playmate. He suffered severe corneal damage, and in later years his left eye did the work of two. The corneal damage, combined with astigmatism inherited from his father, left Knight legally blind. He wore thick glasses all his life, and was forced to paint with his face inches from the canvas.

In 1880, Charles Knight's mother Lucy died. Two years later, George Knight remarried. His new wife, Sarah, proved to be both a thorn in her stepson's side and a boon to his blossoming talent. An artist herself, she was somewhat jealous of the attention his fledgling gifts received. Yet she also nurtured his gifts by sending him to the Froebel Academy, where he began his formal art education. After the Froebel Academy he went to Brooklyn Collegiate, then Polytechnic Institute, and then at twelve began taking art classes at the Metropolitan Art School, which had begun recently in the basement of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There he worked in watercolor, pencil, charcoal, crayon and oil, inspired by the Museum's vast holdings.

In 1890, the church-decorating firm of J. & R. Lamb (which specialized in stained-glass windows) hired two students from the Metropolitan Art School. Charles R. Knight was one of them. Now a professional artist, Knight had a climactic falling out with his stepmother and left home. At Lamb's he was soon given the task of creating the cartoons for all of the animals and plants in their stained-glass windows. This was Knight's first and last "day job." At this time he began to recognize the importance of drawing from life, and spent his mornings sketching animals in the Central Park Zoo.

In 1892, Knight's father suddenly died. Knight, eighteen years old at the time, was devastated. He quit his job, lived on the small amount of money left him by his father, and returned home to live with his grandparents and stepmother. His disagreements with his stepmother escalated, and finally, in 1893, Knight left her home forever. His destination was Manhattan.

Knight soon found work in Manhattan as an illustrator of children's books. Other assignments followed, notably for McClure's magazine. There he met people like Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Knight also began haunting the American Museum of Natural History. Visiting the museum on an almost daily basis, he spent hours in the taxidermy department, studying the carcasses of many creatures, familiarizing himself with their musculature and skeletal structure. There he attracted the attention of the Museum's scientists. One of them, Dr. Jacob Wortman, asked him if he could produce a life restoration from the bones of a giant, pig-like mammal called Elotherium. Using his knowledge of the anatomy of modern-day pigs, Knight made a restoration. Wortman was delighted, and this event proved to be of signal importance, launching Knight in the field that would occupy him for much of his career, the painting of prehistoric animals.

Now firmly ensconced at the American Museum of Natural History, Knight continued working as a freelance magazine illustrator. His vistas were expanded in 1896 when S.S. McClure of McClure's sent him on a tour of Europe. There he visited the great museums and zoos of Europe, sketching and painting at every stop. Knight felt that a thorough knowledge of anatomy was essential to creating life-like paintings of animals, and continued to expand his knowledge of anatomy all of his life. He traveled the country from zoo to zoo, always choosing the finest specimens to work from.

Returning home to Manhattan, he met a man who was to become a key figure in his life. Henry Fairfield Osborn was one of the greatest minds in the history of paleontology. Young and enthusiastic, he had just created the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. At this time, fossils were kept out of sight of the public, stored on shelves in store rooms for the reference of scientists. Osborn had the idea of creating paleontological exhibits that were visually informative and exciting to the public. Osborn formed a team of himself, Knight, and scientist Dr. William D. Matthew. Together the three of them worked to get the fossil skeletons mounted in lifelike poses. Knight was instrumental in the process, sketching the skeletons, then using his encyclopedic knowledge of animal musculature to infuse them with life.

Osborn also brought Knight's work to the attention of another legend in the field of paleontology, Edward Drinker Cope. Famous for his studies of prehistoric animals and his lively drawings based on their remains, Knight had the marvelous opportunity of spending two weeks with this distinguished scientist studying his pencil sketches and learning how Cope had arrived at his conclusions regarding his creatures' possible form and proportions.

By 1898, Knight was something of a celebrity at the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum had learned that the most popular and meaningful exhibits to museum visitors were those that were accompanied by Knight's watercolor life restorations. Osborn convinced J. P. Morgan, the famous banker and a patron of the Museum, to finance a score of watercolor and sculpture restorations of prehistoric life. Copies of these were made available to schools and students, while the originals were donated to the Museum.

In 1900, Charles Knight met and married Annie Humphrey Hardcastle. A strong-willed southern woman, she proved to be the ideal spouse for the dreamy, impractical artist.

From 1901 through 1911, Knight produced a series of paintings for the museum. During this time he also created work for the U.S. Fish Commission and U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. He sculpted lifesize heads of two African elephants for the Bronx Zoo, along with a full-scale tapir and a rhinoceros. His work was also purchased by private collectors such as Osborn, Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, Mrs. Dean Sage of Albany, and others.

While Knight's interest in animals and animal anatomy is well-known, it should be noted that Knight's interest in botany was no less keen. He frequently visited friends and patrons in Palm Beach, Florida. They were delighted to entertain the renowned artist, and Knight used the Floridian foliage, particularly the palm trees, in his large prehistoric paintings. Often his paintings were exhibited in the distinguished Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach.

In the teen years of the twentieth century, Knight decorated The American Museum's Hall of the Age of Man with a series of murals, once again sponsored by J.P. Morgan. During this period, in deference to Knight's increasingly delicate health, Osborn talked Morgan into building Knight a studio in Bronxville, where Knight was free from the grind of working on the Museum's premises. Knight had several subsequent studios as well, finally landing in a studio on West 67th street. The 67th Street studio was something of a mecca for an incredible array of personalities of the time, including sculptor George Grey Barnard, who gathered the magnificent collection of art for The Cloisters, the single most important collection of medieval art in America. In 1923, Knight finished the murals for the Hall of the Age of Man. In 1925, he painted a mural for the gallery of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County which housed the Pleistocene fossils taken from the "Tar Pits" at Rancho La Brea. Many murals were to follow for the major natural history museums of the United States.

Among Knight's great admirers was Dr. George Kunz, the renowned gemologist for Tiffany. Visiting Knight's studio, he was struck by the fact that Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History did not own any of Knight's work. Dr. Kunz worked with Knight's daughter Lucy, who was now handling Knight's business relations, to secure a contract to create his biggest commission yet: a series of twenty-eight murals to enclose the new fossil hall of the Field Museum. The murals were to depict the development of life on earth, from its earliest origins through the ages of amphibian, reptile and mammal, culminating with the Age of Man. Knight and Lucy traveled to Chicago in 1926 to begin the project. While in Chicago, Knight met the anthropologist Henry Field, nephew of the museum's president, Stanley Field. Field became a friend and supporter. When, in 1927, Field traveled to France and Spain to do research, Knight took a respite from work on the Field Museum murals and accompanied him. There they toured ancient cave paintings by prehistoric men, led by Abbé Henri Breuil, a world-famous authority on ancient man and his art. The Field Museum mural project consumed four years of Knight's life, and remains today among the museum's most popular treasures.

Back at the American Museum of Natural History, Knight commemorated his fortieth anniversary of association with the museum by painting four murals. The next year he painted another mural for the museum depicting the Blackfoot Indians' story of the Moon goddess, this one commissioned by his close friend Charles Hayden for the Hayden planetarium. In 1935 he published his first book, Before the Dawn of History, for which he wrote a text as well as providing the illustrations, many of which were reproductions of his murals. In November of that year, his mentor Henry Fairfield Osborn died. With the death of his friend, Knight began to pursue other lines of endeavor. He began lecturing about prehistoric animals and man. He also published articles in National Geographic. In 1946 he published his second book, Life Through the Ages, again with text and illustrations by Knight. A third book written and illustrated by Knight, Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists, appeared in 1947. His final book, Prehistoric Man: The Great Adventure was published in 1949.

In his later life Knight spent more and more time with his family. His granddaughter Rhoda remembers listening to her grandfather's account of his earlier years. Together they visited the zoo and The American Museum. Knight would often take her behind the scenes, where he once treated her to the sight of a real frozen baby mammoth preserved in a refrigerator.

From 1944 to 1946 Knight produced what was to be his final series of paintings. This series consisted of twenty-four small paintings representing different forms of life through a succession of geological ages. The paintings were sold as a group to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. In 1951, Knight painted a mural for Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This mural proved to be his last one.

On Wednesday, April 15, 1953, Charles R. Knight died quietly and painlessly in the Polyclinic Hospital in Manhattan.

Knight's influence on our concept of prehistoric animals is immeasurable. Adaptations of his work have found their way (often uncredited) into "dinosaur parks," world's fair exhibits, children's books, comic books and merchandise. Just about anywhere that a prehistoric creature has been presented to the general public, it has been influenced by Charles R. Knight. Although Knight is gone, his influence remains strong in the natural sciences, the visual arts, the literary world and the entertainment industry.

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