Animal Anatomy & Psychology for the Artist and Layman (1947) / by Justine Lee Hirten

Charles R Knight (October 21, 1874 – April 15, 1953) is one of the more famous names in my collection — he was an influential natural history painter best known for his paleo art and scenic murals for natural history museums. His artwork helped set the standard for modern paleo art as his rich, lively paintings ushered in the “classic” era of paleo art in the late 1800's. When his paintings are placed side by side with other works of the 19th century you can see a great leap forward in technique and naturalism compared to the grimacing and rubbery beasts of victorian illustrations. His approach to painting dinosaurs was elevated by his fine arts education through the Metropolitan Museum of Art which clearly exposed him to the masters of art history and provided a foundational skillset in fine art techniques and principles. Evidently in his time he was criticized as a science illustrator for straying too far from established research in favor of artistry, yet it was this aesthetic power that gave him such a singular and impactful legacy in this field. The solidity, color, atmosphere, and emotionality of his paintings helped foster public wonder and excitement about these creatures at the turn of the century and continue to do so today as his artwork is seen by thousands of museum-goers each day.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, “Cretaceous Life of New Jersey” (1877)

Charles R. Knight, “Leaping Laelaps” (1897)

1947’s Animal Anatomy & Psychology for the Artist and Layman does not feature a chapter on dinosaurs but still provides a great context for viewing his paleo art and understanding him as a natural science artist overall. This book is not a manual — the scattered skeletal/muscular diagrams play a secondary role next to his loose animal sketches and portraits and several of the chapters do not feature any muscular, skeletal, or structural information at all.

The text is personal in tone as he describes his observations, musings, and background — no step-by-steps or break-downs of methods, it’s a rambling book if nothing else. I had to laugh a bit at his comments about reknown wildlife artists like Audubon and Fuentes lacking skills due to not having traditional fine art training and again throughout the book as he fixates on what he considers to be the “superior” mediums and methods. I sit here as a fine art school graduate over a century later and at times I can hear my own professors pontificating through these pages (for better or worse). I too owe a lot to my years of study given to understanding form and construction, color theory, anatomy, light, theory, traditional media, and art history, but as time goes on I cling less and less to the feeling of superiority that came from excelling in these areas and feel increasingly humbled by the ingenuity of self-taught artists and illustrators working in non-traditional styles. Neither is superior to the other, and it’s clear that Knight is not entirely close-minded as he goes on to praise both ornithological specialists for their natural talents. The lasting impression I walk away with is that he was simply passionate and idealistic, seeking art in its highest form, and eager to invigorate budding artists to seek mastery through discipline and study.

The book is full of exquisite graphite drawings loosely organized in groupings of related species. As it is with many books of this time period, the vast majority of the text and artwork is devoted to mammals. It also includes some sections on birds, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates, plus a few odd chapters such as “Expression in Birds’ Eyes” ("inferior to mammals", of course), “How Animals Lie Down” (adorable), and “Exotic Types” (a catch-all that is mostly him marveling at different kinds of weird animal anatomy). It’s a lovely book that devotes a lot of time to listing tidbits about each animal’s natural history but also gives special emphasis to what I would describe as the affect or “presence” of various animals (“psychology” in his terms); this is the “feel” for animals you can only get from direct observation, something Knight put much time into at zoos in the United States and abroad and is clearly evidenced by the expressiveness of his drawings.

In the end the book is much more about Knight’s thoughts and artistic vision and not so much a reference for teaching science illustration, and having it in my collection prompts me to reflect on the bridges between fine art and science illustration and helps me further appreciate his reconstructions. He was able to effectively transfer that animal “psychology” into unseen species imagined from fragments and theories, allowing the audience to credibly see the presence of dinosaurs in our world and not as lifeless specimens or as fantastic beasts. Science illustration and fine art exist in a sort of multi-dimensional spectrum and there is so much to explore. I have spoken with science illustrators with fine arts backgrounds who feel self-conscious about not being “scientific enough” — I hope these examples help quell those anxieties, there is great value and potential in your work.

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