Under Knight’s Shadow.. Erwin S Christman

In 1900, a fifteen-year-old boy joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Erwin S Christman had a passionate love of animals and was put to work making illustrations of fossil mammal skulls in the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology. He was encouraged to explore drawing and modelling with modelling clay and caught the attention of the museum’s director, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who took Christman under his wing, encouraging him and supervising much of his work, and as the boy’s artwork developed, he attended New York’s Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, training that helped to refine and develop his artistic skills.

His drawings were initially in ink and wash and later he worked mostly in pen line but he also developed a skill in modelling and three-dimensional work; he worked alongside scientists at the museum as they tried to understand how prehistoric animals could be reconstructed.

When Osborn and Charles Craig Mook published their “Characters and Restoration of the Sauropod Genus Camarasaurus Cope” in 1919, Christman created the restoration, a model working under the direction of William Gregory at the museum, and a series of drawings of the head of Camarasaurus as a full page plate. Christman also worked on life-size restorations, his skill in sculpture thriving under the encouragement and support of the museum staff.


Christman was ten years younger than Knight, who was working at the museum when Christman was there so it seems very unlikely that they wouldn’t have known and interacted with each other. Those of you familiar with Knight’s drawing will see that Christman’s style is more formal and precise than Knight’s slightly looser style, but the Camarasaurus head has the strong sense of form and engagement with the animal seen in  Knight’s work.

So why isn’t Christman as well-known as Knight?

The answer is that, tragically, Christman died suddenly in 1921 of appendicitis, aged only thirty-six, leaving a wife and small children.

Wlliam Gregory, Christman’s collaborator at the museum, wrote a moving obituary in which it’s clear that Christman was popular, well-liked and very highly regarded at the museum. His loss to the museum was as great as his loss to palaeoart in general.

Images from AMNH Digital Archives


Gregory, William K . “Erwin S. Christman, 1885 – 1921: Draughtsman, Artist, Sculptor.” Natural History XX1, no. 6 (Nov-Dec) (1921): 620–25.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield, and Charles Craig Mook. “Characters and Restoration of the Sauropod Genus Camarasaurus Cope . From Type Material in the Cope Collection in the American Museum of Natural History.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 58, no. 6 (1919): 386–96.

Hoagland, Clayton. “They Gave Life to Bones.” The Scientific Monthly 56, no. 2 (1943): 114–33.

Introducing.. Charles R. Knight: Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

Brontosaurus and Diplodocus 1898)

If you’re at all interested in dinosaurs, you’ll have seen the work of artist Charles R. Knight. His paintings and drawings have influenced generations of palaeoartists.

With the discovery of dinosaurs at the end of the 19th century, and the increasing number of species being found and named, the great museums of America started to show mounted dinosaur skeletons to the public. These were supplemented by painted reconstructions showing the animals as if alive, and Knight led the field in working with the museum scientists to make these reconstructions as accurate as possible.

Charles Knight (1874-1953) grew up in New York City, and developed a love of nature and animals from an early age. Encouraged by his parents, he learned to draw, at first copying pictures in books and visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which was then a single red-rick building in Manhattan Square. His father worked for J.P.Morgan, who financed the museum, and the family had special access to the museum outside visitor hours.

Charles already had been diagnosed with weak eyesight and astigmatism when, aged six, a friend threw a badly-aimed stone, which hit Charles in the right eye. It took months for him to regain any sight at all in that eye and put a strain on his left eye: he suffered from deteroriating eyesight all his life but he refused to let it stop him drawing. His love of animals and ability to draw can be seen in his drawing of the family dog, drawn at age 12.

In his teens he attended art school, including the Metropolitan Art School, held in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From art school he was employed by a firm that made stained glass windows for churches where he worked on designs for the windows but when he was 18 his father died and, devastated, he left his job and went to live with his stepmother and grandparents. This didn’t last, so he moved back to Manhattan and worked as a freelance artist, illustrating children’s books and working for McClure’s magazine, but still spent time in the AMNH, where one of the museum scientists, Dr Jacob Wortman, asked him if he could paint prehistoric animals.

Elotherium, 1894

The result was this painting, of a large, pig-like mammal, Elotherium,  which established Knight as the artist-in-residence at the AMNH, although keeping his freelance status. Here, he worked with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr William Matthew to restore prehistoric skeletons and create paintings of them as if they were alive.

Leaping Laelaps, 1897

Osborn arranged for Knight to spend a few weeks with the elderly Edward Drinker Cope, the distinguished palaeontologist who had found and named many iconic and familiar dinosaurs and was, himself, something of an artist. The few weeks in Philadelphia made a great impact on the young Knight and influenced many of his paintings. One of the most famous to come out of this relationship was Leaping Laelaps, unusual for its depiction of dinosaurs as active and energetic during a time when they were usually thought of as slow, ponderous and reptilian.

Knight was to do most of his work for the AMNH, including watercolours and sculptures and many of his images were replicated for schools and students, but he was in demand by other museums, and in 1926 set off for Chicago to paint a series of twenty-eight murals for the new fossil hall of the Field Museum.

These became among the most well-known of Knight’s dinosaur pictures, but by then, his eyesight was deteriorating and he could only paint on small boards, to be enlarged by assistants who painted the actual murals.

Tyrannosaur and Tricerotops, early 1930s

His paintings were not confined to dinosaurs, he worked on prehistoric life in all its form, including murals for the AMNH’s “Age of Mammals in North America” in 1930, and three murals for Hall of the Age of Man showed how prehistoric humans lived. In the mid-1940s, Knight also painted for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a set of twenty-four small paintings showing life through different geological ages, but his longest association was with the AMNH.

Knight died in 1953. He had stopped painting two years earlier, having completely lost his sight.

William Stout’s introduction to ‘Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist’ states:

“If having a lasting influence on other artists is a key criterion for determining the greatness of an artists, then Charles Robert Knight is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century… Knight’s reconstructions became the basis for how dinosaurs were portrayed in the popular media – from King Kong, Fantasia and the animated films of Ray Harryhausen to the Disney theme parks. His paintings fired the ambitions of a legion of young people to choose palaeontology as their future profession. Charles R. Knight’s magnificent blend of powerful art and good science continues to inspire art, science and imagination around the world.”

References and further information:

  • The World of Charles R Knight, http://www.charlesrknight.com
  • Milner, R. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York: Abrams, 2010.
  • Knight, Charles R. Life Through the Ages: Commemorative Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
  • Knight, Charles R.; ed Ottaviani, Jim, Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist.  G.T.Labs, 2005.

Dinosaurs in the Drawing Room: the forgotten palaeoartists Alice and Gertrude Woodward

ABW: Reconstructed Igunanodon

In the genre of palaeoart which was – and still is – dominated by men, the sisters Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Gertrude Mary Woodward (1854-1939) were talented, professional illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Their subjects ranged from children’s book to scientific illustrations of palaeontology, yet their scientific works are all but forgotten today.

The geologists among you will recognise the name of Henry Bolingbroke Woodward, FRS, the eminent geologist and palaeontologist, who eventually became president of the Geologists Association, Malacological Society and the Palaeontological Society. When not studying fossils, writing publications and attending meetings, he had time to father seven children. Two of his daughters, Gertrude and Alice, became professional artists, and although Alice became better known for her children’s book illustrations, both worked in scientific illustration, producing images for the Natural History Museum as well as for published works by scientists of the day.

GMW: drawn for 𝘊𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘔𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘤𝘢 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘎𝘦𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘺, 𝘉𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘔𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘶𝘮 (𝘕𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘭 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺), Part 1 (1897).

The Woodward children were educated at home by a governess but from an early age all were encouraged and taught to draw and, while the boys went on to be scientists, the girls became artists.

Gertrude mostly worked illustrating fossils and she created the images to accompany the infamous Piltdown fossils, a collection of bones that were found in 1912 and thought to be evidence of a formerly unknown early human. They were, in fact, a hoax, but this was not confirmed until 1953.

She became friends with Beatrix Potter, who was fascinated by palaeontology alongside her own childrens’ books and illustrations. Many of Gertrude’s drawings of fossils are in the care of the Natural History Museum, and she illustrated many of their publications on geology and palaeontology, although now her name seems to have faded into obscurity.

By her teens, Alice was being paid to illustrate her father’s lectures and his colleague’s papers. The money allowed her to attend art school, eventually studying at the Academie Julian in Paris, as well as receiving private tuition in illustration. Although working with children’s books, most famously illustrating The Peter Pan Picture Book by Daniel O’Connor.

Her palaeontology illustrations, less well known, were considered accurate and life-like and ranged from recording fossils to reconstructing prehistoric creatures including dinosaurs. Her reconstuctions usually showed the subject in its environment, giving an overall effect of a living creature, and were highly regarded by the scientists commissioning them, although at times she added human figures into the composition; it was known that humans and dinosaurs didn’t co-exist but Alice used them to give an indication of scale.

ABW: Remounted Diplodocus skeleton, 1905
ABW: Gigantosaurus, with child lighting a fire.
ABW: ‘The Evolution of the Elephant’, Second Stage, Palaeomastodon



Alice contributed to major publication by Henry Knipe, ‘Nebula to Man’ (1905), a substantial “coffee-table” book with 70 plates, which she co-illustrated with J. Smit, and ‘Evolution in the Past’, (1912), which had 50 plates, mostly by Alice.

Three of her illustrations were used as plates in Hutchinson’s 1910 volume ‘Extinct Monsters and creatures of Other Days’, in the chapter illustrating the evolution of the elephant family; one image is shown here.

On her death, her sister Katherine arranged for her drawings to be sent to the Natural History Museum for safe-keeping, including five drawings of dinosaurs.


  • ‘Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world’ SUSAN TURNER, CYNTHIA V. BUREK & RICHARD T. J. MOODY. From: Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. &Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343, 111–153.
  • ‘Dinosaur Sculpting’, Debus, A; Morales, B.; Debus, D., McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, NC (2013)