Paleoart (also spelled palaeoart, paleo-art, or paleo art) is any original artistic work that attempts to reconstruct or depict prehistoric life according to the current knowledge and scientific evidence at the moment of creating the artwork. The term paleoart was introduced in the late 1980s by Mark Hallett for art that depicts subjects related to paleontology. These may be representations of fossil remains or depictions of the living creatures and their ecosystems. The term is a portmanteau of “art” and the ancient Greek word for old.
As early as the 16th century, there are engravings of fossil remains in natural history books. At the end of the 18th century Georges Cuvier, one of the founders of paleontology, was the first to reconstruct fossil vertebrates from bone, and to have them published in engraving. But this remains in the context of the description of bone and not in the reconstruction of animals extinct in flesh and bone10. One of the forerunners of reconstructing faunas from past periods, can be found after Stephen Jay Gould in the Physica sacra published by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, and illustrated with 745 intaglio prints, illustrating biblical history according to an approach scientific sense, in the sense it was given at the time11. One of the most notable boards is engraving 49, which represents the homo diluvi testis (witness to the Flood), which Cuvier revealed a century later that it was actually a fossil salamander.
Between Scheuchzer, and the early nineteenth century, the date of the first fossil reconstructions, the works of geology and paleontology are content to reproduce planks of fossils, and almost none offers reconstructed scene periods of history of the earth at a time when the notion of extinct species and geological times is not yet fully accepted.
Duria Antiquior, an older Dorset, marks an important date in the artistic reconstruction of a period of prehistory. This watercolor by Henry De la Beche, dated 1830 and several times reproduced, becomes in the nineteenth century, the canonical model of scenes showing extinct species in their environment. It was the first pictorial reconstruction of a scene dating back to the dawn of time, based on fossil finds found by Mary Anning. De la Beche establishes the codes of the reconstruction of prehistoric scenes, which will be taken up after him by many paleoartists, by the profusion of represented species, and in situations of predation. In the foreground, the jaw of the ichthyosaur closing on the long neck of the plesiosaur, becomes a cliché of paleontological iconography.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins is the most important paleoartist of this period, his collaboration with paleontologist Richard Owen, is the first example of a joint work between an artist and a scientist to restore the appearance of missing animals, an example that will continue later. with the collaborations of Charles R. Knight and Henry Fairfield Osborn in the early twentieth century, or Zdenek Burian and Josef Augusta. The highlight of this cooperation is the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, the first life-size sculptures of dinosaurs as their appearance at the time. Some models were originally created for the 1851 World’s Fair, but 33 of them were finally made when Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham in South London. Owen organized a famous dinner for 21 guests all of prominent scientists inside the hollow concrete of Iguanodon on New Year’s Eve in 1853.
The true leap in quality of paleoarte occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the American artist Charles R. Knight. Knight used comparative anatomy to represent fossil animals, aiming to reconstruct the soft tissues and, finally, the outer appearance of the dinosaurs. He followed, for his work, a technique that added layers on layers, starting from the bone structure, succeeding in correctly representing posture and appearance of the animal . His representations quickly surpassed all previous Victorian era realism, thanks to his close collaboration with paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn .
Throughout the 20th century, many other artists ventured into the representation of extinct species, including Zdeněk Burian, Jay Matternes and Rudolph Zallinger; the latter won the Pulitzer Prize for painting in 1949. Thanks to the collaboration with paleontologists and palaeobotanists, the reconstruction of the appearance of prehistoric animals has become a representation of the scientific knowledge of the moment. The depicted appearance of animals has therefore changed over time, changing with the progress of scientific discoveries .
Towards the end of the twentieth century, there was a fashionable return to the dinosaurs. In 1986, the paleontologist Robert Bakker published Dinosaurs Heresies, a book in which he revolutionized the anatomical and metabolic conception of dinosaurs. It suggests their nature of warm-blooded animals and the active way of life, radically changing the established idea of cold-blooded and indolent dinosaurs. Bakker also makes the combination of the dinosaurs, as possible ancestors of modern birds.
In this period of rebirth of interest for prehistory, reconstructions of extinct animals have multiplied where the artists have paid a more attentive ear to new scientific discoveries . If on the one hand we have seen creations as faithful as possible to what was hypothesised by science, a vein of sensationalistic paleoart has also appeared, where animals often appear to be aggressive and produce vocalizations and improbable roars . Many authors have also uncritically jumped on some discoveries, such as the existence of feathered dinosaurs in the Mesozoic , while others have voluntarily left out for reasons dictated by the need to impress the public . Once again, even these modern representations arise from a misinterpretation of fossil discoveries: the use of plumage would be born as a protection against attacks rather than a form of locomotion or to maintain body temperature. There remains therefore a certain resistance to the new iconography on the dinosaurs, whose realism contrasts with the fantasy reconstructions to which both the scientific environment and the public are accustomed.
The paleoarte is still subject to artistic speculations, given that not everything rebuilds paleontology. In the early years of 2010, a group of artists gave birth to some experimental publications , depicting dinosaurs according to the most recent theories. This strand aims to revive the public’s interest in science, rather than for the spectacularity of the drawings, and at the same time push the frontier between scientific work and artistic representation of nature further.
The work of paleoartists is not mere fantasy of an artist’s imagination but rather consists of cooperative discussions among experts and artists. When attempting to reconstruct an extinct animal, the artist must utilise an almost equal mixture of artistry and scientific knowledge. The artist James Gurney, known for the Dinotopia series of fiction books, has described the interaction between scientists and artists as the artist being the eyes of the scientist, since his illustrations bring shape to the theories; palaeoart determines how the public perceives long extinct animals.
Extinct marine animals were some of the first to be restored as in life. Art has been important in disseminating knowledge of dinosaurs since the term was introduced by Sir Richard Owen in 1842. With Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen helped create the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs as he thought they may have appeared. Some models were initially created for the Great Exhibition of 1851, but 33 were eventually produced when the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham, in South London. Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science inside the hollow concrete Iguanodon on New Year’s Eve 1853. However, in 1849, a few years before his death in 1852, Gideon Mantell had realised that Iguanodon, of which he was the discoverer, was not a heavy, pachyderm-like animal, as Owen was putting forward, but had slender forelimbs; his death left him unable to participate in the creation of the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures, and so Owen’s vision of dinosaurs became that seen by the public. He had nearly two dozen lifesize sculptures of various prehistoric animals built out of concrete sculpted over a steel and brick framework; two Iguanodon, one standing and one resting on its belly, were included. The dinosaurs remain in place in the park, but their depictions are now outdated in many respects.
A 2013 study found that older paleoart was still influential in popular culture long after new discoveries made them obsolete. This was explained as cultural inertia. In a 2014 paper, Mark P. Witton, Darren Naish, and John Conway outlined the historical significance of paleoart, and lamented its current state.
Since 1999, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has awarded the John J. Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for achievement in the field. The society says that paleoart “is one of the most important vehicles for communicating discoveries and data among paleontologists, and is critical to promulgating vertebrate paleontology across disciplines and to lay audiences”. The SVP is also the site of the occasional/annual “PaleoArt Poster Exhibit”, a juried poster show at the opening reception of the annual SVP meetings.
The Museu da Lourinhã organizes the annual International Dinosaur Illustration Contest for promoting the art of dinosaur and other fossils.
The excess production of images of dinosaurs, which on many occasions are not scientifically accurate reconstructions of the animal that would intend to show rebuilt or not supported by fossil evidence, has been called “paleoartism” by the paleontologist Andrea Cau; the problem posed by incorrect reconstructions increases when the demand from museums and scientific organizations of animal representations of the past is addressed to artists who are not able to perform correct reconstructions .
Cau states that it is “of the idea that 90% of paleo-art seen in these times is ugly, inaccurate, sad and annoying”, with unnatural reconstructions in which the dinosaurs have their mouths wide open, roar, droop or stare , badly designed with feathers “probably induced by the obsession of” covering their animals with feathers “and above all” Everyone stares at making the most stunning heads, the most exuberant postures, and then they fall ruinously when it comes to representing all this that is distally to the elbow “.
Following this high production and diffusion of often imaginative reconstructive images, paleontologists have begun a revision of some interpretations made by paleoartists, including some whose works have also been used to illustrate scientific and popular texts on dinosaurs, and this happens in particular for those paleoartists qualified as independent researchers and not associated with any academic institution without a qualification in earth sciences or in biology .