Realizing that sunlight coming through gallery windows was damaging the Field Museum's renowned collection of dinosaur fossils, curators hit upon what was, for 1926, an extravagantly expensive solution.

They spent $140,000 to commission the world's greatest painter of extinct, prehistoric animal life to create a series of huge murals of dinosaurs that would cover the exhibit hall windows and block the light.

Today, dinosaur cognoscenti say, the Field's 28 murals by New York artist Charles R. Knight may be as famous and valuable as any fossil in the museum's collection, including Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex, acquired for $8.36 million in 1997.

From the time the paintings were hung in 1931, many of them have been recognizable around the world. Photos of them have been printed in science textbooks and periodicals, helping inspire some paleontologists to enter the field.

Next March, the museum plans to open "Evolving Planet," an expanded, 27,000-square-foot display on the history of life on Earth that will feature state-of-the-art, razzle-dazzle, computer-based exhibit tools.

But Knight's elegant and surprisingly accurate murals will be there, too. An art-restoration firm has spent nine months cleaning and repairing the artwork, and the project is nearly done.

After 70 years, Knight's interpretations "of how animals looked and moved aren't always perfect, but to an amazing degree, given all the new knowledge we have gleaned about dinosaurs since then, his paintings hold up extremely well," said William Simpson, the museum's fossil vertebrates collections manager.

The murals--some 25 feet long by 9 feet high, others 11 feet by 9 feet--depict dinosaur life as it evolved from its beginning 225 million years ago to extinction 65 million years ago.

The most famous is a painting of a fierce T. rex approaching a heavily armored, three-horned triceratops for a showdown. When Knight painted it in the 1920s, professional paleontologists theorized that T. rex sat and walked bolt upright, body perpendicular to the ground in a tripodal position, feet and tail on the ground.

The painting of T. rex with triceratops, said Simpson, "shows how Knight hedged his bets" on the prevailing theory of dinosaur physiology.

In the background, Knight included a T. rex portrayed in the upright, tripodal position, but the main T. rex figure is portrayed far differently.

"It is actually in a modern pose, fairly close to how we now think they actually moved around, with tail in the air and head and neck parallel to the ground," said Simpson. Its stance is close to how the Sue fossil is posed in the museum.

"He knew animals well and carefully thought through how extinct animals behaved. ... It certainly wasn't how most paleontologists in those days thought T. rex moved about."

Many of today's great dinosaur paleontologists bow deeply to Knight's imagination for inspiring them to their life's work.

Philip J. Currie, a paleontologist at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum whose work strongly links the ancestry of modern birds to dinosaurs, has written about when he was 11, he received a book of stickers that were "reproductions of the stunningly beautiful color paintings that Charles Knight had done for the Field Museum."

"Such was the power of those images that they worked their way into my dreams and started to shape my understanding of how dinosaurs interacted with each other and their environments," Currie said. "To this day, those paintings are burned deeply into my memory."

Great science-fiction author Ray Bradbury and prominent science- fiction filmmaker Ray Harryhausen also have acknowledged they used Knight's paintings as inspiration for stories and as models for animals they created.

"No one shaped the public vision of extinct mammals and dinosaurs more than Charles R. Knight," according to a National Geographic essay two years ago on the 50th anniversary of Knight's death.

Describing him as "an artist who though legally blind had limited vision thanks to thick glasses," the magazine said "Knight's work has a believability few others have been able to equal."

Other artists who had attempted the same subject relied mostly on their own imaginations for their depictions, resulting in error- ridden illustrations.

But Knight gleaned his ideas from paleontologists who were digging up and studying fossils and from studying the physiology and behavior of zoo animals that most resembled prehistoric creatures.

In his studio, he constructed small skeletal models, building them up with simulated musculature and flesh and posing them for his painting.

"Knight's ability to make long-extinct creatures come alive helped transform vertebrate paleontology from a hobby akin to philately [stamp collecting] to an interpretational science that added a time dimension to biology," said John Harris, a paleontologist at Page Museum in Los Angeles.

Having long ago recognized that the Knight murals were masterpieces of the genre, last July the Field commissioned Parma, a Chicago fine-arts-conservation company, to restore the murals in time for the new exhibit.

"These murals are Knight's magnum opus," Simpson said last week as he watched the restorers put finishing touches on the paintings.

They also served their purpose. The fossils the museum sought to protect from sunlight 80 years ago will be in the new exhibit's huge dinosaur section, as will fossils the museum has added since.

The last mural being worked on depicts a scene of giant, long- necked plesiosaurs and dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, both nasty fish- eating marine serpents that dominated the oceans in dinosaur times. Knight imagined them swimming and eating fish in a shallow sea near a shore.

"You can almost hear these things hissing and screaming, they are so animated and lifelike," Parma structural conservator John Salhus said of the plesiosaurs as he cleaned the mural's surface. It had darkened years ago with the aging of a starchy solution applied during an earlier, ill-advised restoration.

"One of the problems we had with all of the murals is that they had been cleaned once before non-professionally in the past with something caustic, leaving the top layer of paint in very delicate, flaking condition," said Elizabeth Kendall, owner of Parma.

"You can see they are much brighter now that they're cleaned. They're so compelling, making the animals come alive. We're sad it's coming to an end."

Cleaning of
Field murals
shows off
real dino might

Sue gets all the attention now, but wait until lifelike murals of her buddies are restored

By William Mullen, Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Apr 28, 2005

Image caption:
Conservators John Salhus (left) and Peter Schoenmann work on restoring a canvas artwork by Charles Knight.
Tribune photo by Phil Velasquez

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