|Charles R. Knight is the greatest genius in the line
of prehistoric restoration of human and animal
life that the science of paleontology has ever known.
-- Henry Fairfield Osborne
Following this Field is
Great News for Mesa
by David M. Brown
Northeast Mesa Lifestyle, January 2003
Her grandfather loved dinosaurs.
But King Kong was okay, too.
Su Lin the panda as well.
Even people -- Cro Magnon smarties, especially.
He loved to imagine how dinosaurs lived, how they ate, walked, or trampled -- or just about anything else they wanted to do in their misty primeval brutality. He was aborbed in the lifestyle and clothing of early man. And he loved recent animals, too, and spent much of his time in zoos watching them.
Grandfather was Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) -- the greatest paleoartist ever -- universally acknowledged "The Father of Prehistoric and Wildlife Art." Knight's study for a mural of prehistoric creatures from the Southwest and Arizonda is on a six-month loan at the Arizona Museum of Natural History, 53 N. MacDonald St.
She is Rhoda Knight Kalt; her mother, Lucy Hardcastle Knight, was Charles R. Knight's daughter. One of Knight's two grandchildren, Kalt was recently in Mesa to announce a major event for Mesa's too-long underappreciated museum: Next year, the museum will host a special exhibition of his work, "Celebrating the Life of Charles R. Knight on the 50th Anniversay of his Death (1874-1953)," following its opening at Chicago's world-famous Field Museum of Natural History, where his famous dinosaur murals (e.g., the famous study of Triceratops challenging Tyrannosaurus) have been enjoyed for decades. The Knight exhibit is scheduled for Mesa from February through May 2004.
She fondly remembers her childhood in New York City with her grandfather as a melange of events, all intimately connected with his work -- even teas in which she learned, quickly, how to become a lady in society.
"I remember spending time at the American Museum of Natural History and at the Bronx Zoo," she recalls. The Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), provided Knight with experiential information about animal movement, skeletal and muscular activity, and background scenes.
One of the paintings Knight completed at the zoo will appear at the exhibition: Bengal Tiger and Peacock, an oil considered Knight's finest tiger (his favorite living creature). Two other pieces: Su Lin, the Giant Panda, a 1937 pencil drawing of the first panda brought into the Western hemisphere -- and a recent subject of an IMAX film; and Bushman, the Male Gorilla, a pencil drawing from 1944, which inspired Willis O'Brien's classic RKO film, "King Kong."
"'To do the prehistoric creatures,' he would always say, 'you have to study the anatomy of living creatures,'" she recalls. This eyes-on philosophy found him in New York City studying in taxidermy studios, in New England by the ocean, in Los Angeles' Rancho La Brea "Tar Pits," and in Florida at Palm Beach studying foliage for background scenes.
And study and learn and paint he did: By 12, he was already studying at the Metropolitan Art School (in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Learning, however, was difficult: "As a boy, his right eye was damaged by a stone thrown by a playmate," she says, "And in both eyes he had astigmatism." She adds that he wore thick glasses throughout his life, painting with his "good" left eye just inches from the canvas.
But Knight saw far into the future of paleo art -- so far that he's still considered the best. His work inspired figures in Disney's classic "Fantasia." More recently, IMAX featured him in the 1998 film, "T-Rex Back to the Cretaceous." And, sculptor Michael Trcic, whose bronze Dilophosaurus guards the facade of the Mesa Southest Museum, has studied Knight's work to produce his work, including figures for "Jurassic Park."
Knight knew many of the notables of his age -- people such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, and banker/financier J. P. Morgan, Knight's greatest patron. He also became a close friend of paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborne as well as George Gaylord Simpson and Edwin "Ned" Colbert, who eventually worked in Arizona at, respectively, the University of Arizona and the Museum of Northern Arizona.
King Kong would be grateful.
[This article has been slightly condensed.]
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