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Charles Robert Knight (1874 – 1953) was one of the first American artists to popularize the prehistoric past, being one of the first and most influential artists to use dinosaurs, prehistoric animals, and early hominids as his primary subjects. Generations of museum goers have seen his illustrations in the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Everhart Museum, the Carnegie Museum, and over a dozen other major institutions in the United States. (Including two sculpted African elephant heads at the Bronx Zoo.) In many ways, he was like the John James Audubon of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic.

The artist with a model of a stegosaur, 1899.

The artist with a model of a stegosaur, 1899.

Some five decades earlier, perceptions of the prehistoric world looked something like this. Bulky creatures that look so lethargic as to be immobile. Meanwhile, Knight depicted dynamic and mobile creatures; his image “Leaping Laelaps” is one of the earliest images to show dinosaurs as dynamic, aggressive animals, an idea that didn’t gain popular acceptance until the 1960s. A lot of the science that went into his drawings is now considered antiquated—dinosaurs forced to live in swamps due to the crushing weight of their bulk is a theory that’s long been discarded, and today the argument is whether to depict them with feathers or not. But his colorful images were worlds ahead of his contemporaries, and continue to inspire viewers today.