In 1873, Russian painter Viktor Hartmann died. His friends, the critic Vladimir Stasov and composter Modest Mussorgsky were shocked and mourned his death. As a memorial, Stasov arranged an exhibition of Hartmann’s works at St. Petersburg’s Academy of Fine Arts, and Mussorgsky composed a suite of tone poems based on the works, a section for each painting. Mussorgsky’s musical tribute is called Pictures at an Exhibition, and along with his infamous Night on Bald Mountain and opera Boris Gudnov are the composer’s most significant works. This isn’t really relevant, but this is the explanation for the title of this series of short blogs.
The subject of these posts is on another series of paintings, one dear to all fans of Chicago’s Field Museum. In 1926, Charles R Knight had already become famous among natural history enthusiasts. For the past 30 years, he had painted, drawn, and sculpted a series of iconic art pieces for the American Museum of Natural History. Any visitor to the museum today will recognize the influence Knight had on later natural history artists, especially those of prehistoric animals. Paleoartists today recognize Knight as the genius who started realistic but evocative art portraying prehistoric animals.
In 1925, the previous year, Knight had worked in Los Angeles, illustrating a great tableau of the prehistoric tar pits of La Brea for the museum there. Upon his return to New York, Knight met a friend from the museum, Dr. George Kunz. Kunz was the mineralogist of the day, vice president of Tiffany’s, and veteran of many of the World’s Fairs at the turn of the 20th century. Kunz at the time had been helping the only 3-year-old Field Museum manage its gem collection with its curator Henry W Nichols, and told Knight that he was surprised that the Field Museum hadn’t called Knight to illustrate their new halls of fossils and animals. Knight had earlier been rejected by the Field in the past years and was hesitant to try again. Kuntz wasn’t going to let him give up, though. He had formed a plan with Knight’s daughter Lucy to confront the museum. Lucy was passionate about her father’s abilities and refused to let him retire early and poorer. She wrote Field and the other trustees indignant letters and even went to Chicago in person. Humiliated, they acquiesced to hire Knight. Henry Field, nephew of the Museum’s owner Marshall, was ecstatic. He was an anthropologist and personally took Knight on a tour of prehistoric caves in France and Spain.
Knight collaborated with Nichols and the museum’s most distinguished paleontologist Elmer Riggs in the project-28 watercolor murals, 13 of them 25’x9’ and 15 of them 11’x9’ showing scenes of prehistory from before life to the ice ages.
Today I’m going to start talking about these murals, one by one. Each is an artistic masterpiece, but I’m going to talk about their composition, their subject, and their scientific accuracy. It is my opinion that this museum, the Carnegie, and the Yale Peabody are the only ones I’ve visited where art effectively complements the specimens-the depictions of the animals in life next to their fossils combine to make powerful simulations of the living animals.
The series of paintings begins with one that has not been on exhibit since 1991. To be fair, that’s because the museum can’t devote that much room to the earth before life, and video and other media are more effective at explaining to the public the origins of life.
The setting is 2 billion years ago. According to Knight and the museum, life had not yet begun. It was a time of the formation of oceans and continents-volcanism was still intense as it had been for the past two billion years, but this time the carbon dioxide and water vapor had condensed in an atmosphere dense enough to produce torrential rain.
Volcanism is the theme of this mural, an almost post-apocalyptic landscape. In the foreground, towers of cooling lava glow and steam as they coil in the moist air. In the center, an early ocean lies tranquilly. In the background, mountains formed by the tectonic action loom, one of them still smoking. Tectonic activity, because of its age, has been associated with the earth’s past. Volcanoes are ubiquitous in art of prehistory, as I’ve mentioned in many movie reviews, and like Fantasia (no doubt inspired by Knight’s art) they begin the story.
Life, however, is older. The conclusions made in the 1920s have been overruled. The museum itself is explicit on the antiquity of life. Microbial mats have been found to be almost 4 billion years old. Their fossils of their colonies, stromatolites, date to the eon (about 1 billion years of time) before the setting of this painting. 2 billion years ago was instead the dawn of eukaryotes, organisms with nuclear cells. All the life we can see with our naked eye, including ourselves, is eukaryotes. The eukaryotes would have been microscopic algae, impossible to see on the painting, and so while the painting’s original description is inaccurate, the painting itself is still accurate. Volcanism was still raging, and life was still quite small. No true animals, plants, or even fungi had evolved.
The painting depicts the quiet, lonely time of earth’s history. Chemical, biological, and geological forces were in motion, slow but constant and eternal. These same forces still are at work-the microbial biosphere is the most quick to evolve, and now covers the earth. The continents still move-volcanoes and earthquakes still shape the planet’s surface, now inhabited by the victims of the geological forces.
What this post means to do is the same thing as the painting- setting the state. Everything needs a beginning, and it’s best of start as early as possible.