Tuesday 30 November 2021

The long, winding road to the first sauropod palaeoartworks

It's a well-verified fact that the best dinosaurs to draw are the sauropods, exemplified here by the mighty Giraffatitan brancai. But the route to this modern realisation was a difficult one. When sauropods were first discovered no one wanted to restore them at all: their fossils were always in the hands of the wrong people, at the wrong time, and our first attempt at restoring their life appearance was many decades after their discovery. A strange story awaits.
Is there any shape more emblematic of prehistoric life than the silhouette of a sauropod? The combination of long neck, long tail, round body and four robust limbs is universal visual shorthand for anything to do with dinosaurs and, more broadly, extinct life, such that sauropods are bone fide superstars of palaeontological pop-culture. The world-renowned Sinclair logo, Gertie, the leads of The Land Before Time and The Good Dinosaur, the scene welcoming us to Jurassic Park… all sauropods.

Much of the most famous sauropod iconography is, as with so much palaeontological media, related to fully-fleshed sauropod reconstructions rather than their fossil bones, so we can consider much of their popular appeal lying within paleoart. Given the undeniable spectacle and wonder associated with sauropod fossils, where even single bones can be jaw-dropping museum centrepieces, we might imagine that early scientists and palaeoartists jumped at the chance to put flesh on the skeletons of these long-necked reptiles as soon fossil material revealed their basic shape. And yet, this was not the case. The story of how sauropods entered the palaeoart canon and became ambassadors for all things dinosaurian and extinct is a peculiar one, where a full half-century passed between their discovery and their palaeoart canonisation. This is a story of how combative attitudes and egos, missed opportunities and perceived failures in early palaeoartworks stymied life reconstructions of sauropods for much of the 19th century.

(The following post owes much to the history of sauropod research outlined by Mike Taylor (2010) and Mark Hallett and Matt Wedel (2016). Be sure to check these out if you want a more detailed perspective on 19th century sauropod science.)

Fragmentary beginnings

Our tale begins, of course, with the discovery and description of the first sauropods Cetiosaurus and "Cardiodon" by Richard Owen in 1841. As with all the first dinosaur discoveries, our first sauropod fossils were isolated bones from southern Britain. Little could be said about the life appearance of the animals they represented other than that they were enormous reptiles. On account of their size, it was assumed sauropods must have been aquatic and – like all giant sea creatures – carnivorous. Perhaps, it was wondered, they were the arch predators of Mesozoic oceans: the devourers of plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Owen speculated that such a creature must have borne a well-developed caudal fin perhaps similar to that of an ichthyosaur, but this awesome vision of sauropods did not lead to any life reconstructions despite the cavalier reputation of early 19th century Europeans for restoring extinct animals (if you’ve been reading my blog since its origins, you may remember an article on this very topic).

We might wonder why this was the case. After all, animals like Megalosaurus were initially represented by little more material than Cetiosaurus, but they were still restored within just a few years of their discovery. The absence of early 19th century sauropod reconstructions shows, to my mind, some level of nuance about early Victorian palaeoartists. Though often characterised as wild and speculative, the early Victorian palaeoart canon was surprisingly conservative, mainly showing similar scenes populated by the same species in the same anatomical guises. Many of their depictions were also of animals with decent fossil representation like marine reptiles, pterosaurs and fossil mammals, such that the restoration of poorly-represented species, like dinosaurs, can be viewed as exceptional. Moreover, and in further defence of the first palaeoartists, dinosaur anatomy wasn’t a total unknown in the early 19th century. Several species had been attributed characteristic anatomical features such as nose horns, body armour, or distinctive teeth, so there was something to hang restorations around. But sauropods lacked even a basic defining feature, and thus had no way of being distinguished or characterised from other restored giant reptiles. Should vindictive time-travellers ever force early Victorians to draw fleshed-out sauropods, the result would probably be nothing more than generic, giant carnivorous reptiles, perhaps little different to some of John Martin’s whale-sized, lizard-like dinosaurs.

John Martin's frontispiece to G. F. Richardson's 1842 book Geology for Beginners, entitled Age of Reptiles. A lot of early 19th century dinosaur palaeoart was not especially attentive to details of anatomy and form, such that sauropods, if they had been illustrated, probably would have looked much like the (?)Megalosaurus in this piece.

The whale lizard flounders in the palaeoart doldrums

A major step towards understanding sauropod life appearance was made in the late 1860s when a large haul of Cetiosaurus bones were found in Oxfordshire, UK. Described by geologist John Phillips in the 1871 book Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames, this partial skeleton included limb bones, ribs, limb girdles and many vertebrae, and thus provided our first decent insight into the sauropod body plan. In what seems like a cruel twist of fate, no neck or skull bones were recovered, denying knowledge of the most defining characteristic of the group for another few years. Nevertheless, Phillips had enough anatomy to start making the first relatively informed insights into sauropod appearance and behaviour, and he devoted several pages of his book to discussing the size, habits and even skin of Cetiosaurus. Much of what we now think about sauropods was prophesied here, with Phillips describing very large, scaly reptiles that lived on land and ate plants. He made a number of favourable comparisons to Iguanodon in his discussion of Cetiosaurus habits such that he may have imagined it as an especially gigantic large-bodied, quadrupedal herbivore in the vein of Waterhouse Hawkins’ Crystal Palace Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. It is curious, therefore, in light of this evident interest, that Phillips did not attempt some sort of reconstruction. He had enough bones to at least construct a decent skeletal diagram. But, OK - maybe reconstructions weren’t Phillip’s thing. With all this anatomical information, surely someone else picked up the baton?

John Phillips' quarry map of a partial Cetiosaurus skeleton found in 1869-70. A lot of the vertebrae and smaller bones are amalgamated into packages in this drawing, but the glut of material is obvious. This was the first significant insight into sauropod life appearance... but not much came of it among Victorian palaeoart. From Phillips (1871).

And it’s at this point that our story becomes rather strange. Cetiosaurus, which was by now as well represented as other animals routinely featured in palaeoart, continued to be snubbed by artists. We have to take a step back from sauropod palaeoart history and expand our scope to the discipline as a whole to understand why. Along with Cetiosaurus, a number of genuinely important, game-changing dinosaur discoveries had been made across Europe in the mid-1800s that included Scelidosaurus (the first complete dinosaur skeleton), Compsognathus, Hypsilophodon, and Archaeopteryx. All were represented by excellent fossils that dramatically enhanced our understanding of dinosaurs and had major implications for reconstructing their life appearance, and yet none were canonised into palaeoart of the day. If you look hard enough you may find some simple line drawings of Archaeopteryx here and there, but there were no lavish paintings, no sculptures or elaborate lithographs celebrating these new animals.

Evidently, Cetiosaurus itself wasn't being snubbed. These superior sauropod remains had arrived while European palaeoart was in a funk that would last several decades, an era when most new palaeoartworks featured restorations recycled from the early 1800s instead of novel reconstructions of newly-discovered species. A contributing factor to suppressed creativity in late 19th century European palaeoart was, ironically, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (Secord 2004; Nieuwland 2019). Although popular with the public, most academic response to the 1854 unveiling of these models was negative. Criticisms were many, focusing on their speculated elements, the juxtaposition of modern landscapes with extinct animals, and accusations that they were simply scaled up, monsterised living species. Several Crystal Palace reconstructions were also rapid embarrassed by new fossil data, such that these flagships of Victorian palaeoart were now misleading or confusing the public more than educating them. The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs had given scholars of the 1870s good reason to be sceptical of palaeoart, and the creation of new life reconstructions fell out of fashion for a generation.

American palaeoart to the rescue… sort of

The awakening of American palaeoartistry is one of the few major events that occurred in palaeoart history in the early-late 19th century. While American palaeoartists slowly found their feet, the discovery of excellent sauropod material in western states in the 1870s finally revealed the full spectacle of these amazing, unique animals. Among the first relatively well-known American sauropods was Camarasaurus, found in 1877 and described by Edward Drinker Cope in the same year. These specimens, at last, revealed something of the iconic sauropod neck. Scientists were finally impressed enough to reconstruct a sauropod skeleton, and the result was John A. Ryder’s composite mounted skeleton of a ribless, sail-tailed Camarasaurus, complete with a speculated skull. This mount was around 50 ft long and exhibited at a meeting of The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in December 1877, but no images of it were not published until 1914. Nor, for that matter, was it accompanied or followed by a life reconstruction. In fact, I don’t know that anyone has attempted to restore Ryder’s Camarasaurus, so I set aside an hour or so in preparation of this article to finally correct this important injustice. I'd love to see more from different artists - #justiceforRydersaurus!

OK, yes, John A. Ryder's 1877 Camarasaurus skeletal is a little bizarre, but the essence of sauropod form is there. It's a stone-cold crime that no one reconstructed the life appearance of this skeleton, so I've had a go here. Some attempt has been made to give the restoration a classical 19th century, Hawkinsian palaeoart flavour.

The absence of an 1877 Camarasaurus life restoration is all the more curious because of Cope’s association with this specimen. Cope is most famous for his feud with Othniel Marsh and the ‘Bone Wars’ period of American vertebrate palaeontology, but he was also one of the main instigators of American palaeoartistry. During the 1860s Cope produced iconic artworks of dinosaurs known from New Jersey which can be considered among the first flesh reconstructions of recognisable, basically anatomically accurate dinosaurs, as well as well-known depictions of taxa from the Western Interior Seaway. He was an advisor in the 1868 reconstruction of Hadrosaurus by Joseph Leidy and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, and thus had connections to the first grandmaster of palaeoart himself, who was often based in the US for palaeoartistic purposes in the 1860s and 1870s. And yet, around all this, Cope never produced a published sauropod life reconstruction, and nor did his relationship with Hawkins yield any (published) sauropod illustrations. We may ascribe the latter to Hawkins’ dislike of Cope, whom he regarded as an overbearing, fussy collaborator. On at least one occasion he threatened to abandon a project entirely if Cope was involved (Bramwell and Peck 2008). Who knows how the early history of American palaeoart would have played out had these two giants of their disciplines been on better terms.

Othniel Marsh's 1883 restoration of Brontosaurus - a significant advance over the Ryder sauropod skeletal of just a few years prior.

Cope was, of course, not the only major player in the discovery of American sauropods. Indeed, Cope’s rival, Marsh, probably has a greater legacy with these animals, not only naming more species but also coining the name ‘Sauropoda’. Marsh named and described many now-iconic sauropods including Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, and in 1883 he published a Brontosaurus skeletal reconstruction that was, anatomically speaking, vastly superior to Ryder's Camarasaurus. Marsh was thus another person well-placed to facilitate the first artistic resurrection of sauropod life appearance… if only it weren't for his career-long disdain for palaeoart. Here's what he said on this topic in 1875:

I do not believe it possible at present to make restorations of any of the more important extinct animals of this country that will be of real value to science, or the public. In the few cases where materials exist for a restoration of the skeleton alone, these materials have not yet been worked out with sufficient care to make such a restoration perfectly satisfactory, and to go beyond this would in my judgment almost certainly end in serious mistakes. Where the skeleton, etc., is only partly known, the danger of error is of course much greater, and I would think it is very unwise to attempt restoration, as error in a case of this kind is very difficult to eradicate from the public mind… A few years hence we shall certainly have the material for some good restorations of our wonderful extinct animals, but the time is not yet.

(Marsh 1875, quoted in Dodson 1996, p.74)

Marsh’s criticism of palaeoart has a lot of implications for the development of the discipline in general, and almost certainly contributed to the delayed canonisation of sauropods. He held many of the best cards when it came to understanding sauropod life appearance but was the last person who would include a life restoration in a publication. Moreover, his reputation, influence, and longstanding criticism of palaeoart may have further dampened drives to restore newly discovered taxa in Europe, where some of his fiercest denouncement of palaeoartworks were expressed. Marsh’s views were surely a major contributor to the strange fact that the Bone Wars era - one of the most intense periods of discovery and analysis in early dinosaur history – was entirely bereft of associated palaeoart. And while Cope could, in theory, have picked up these palaeoartistic pieces, the ferocity of his feud with Marsh surely meant that he avoided reconstructing Marsh taxa, no matter how spectacular they were. There’s some irony in Marsh and Cope being so instrumental to our early conceptualisation of sauropods but that their various hang-ups - with each other, with other people, and with palaeoart - only kicked the can further down the road.

Finally, a life reconstruction! ...that everyone ignored

By this time - the late 1870s or early 1880s - sauropods had been known to science for about 40 years, with decent, restorable remains on record for at least half that time. Their gigantic size and spectacular anatomy were well appreciated and, thanks to Marsh, their skeletal anatomy had been committed to scientific literature. In these circumstances, surely someone was going to crack and attempt a flesh restoration? Yes, finally, someone did - but not in either of the historic homes of sauropods, Britain and the US. Rather, it was the French author Nicolas Camille Flammarion who provided the first (to my knowledge) sauropod life restoration in his 1886 book Le Monde Avant la Création de l’Homme, courtesy artist J. Blanedet. Behold:

Finally, a sauropod life restoration! J. Blanedet's 1886 Atlantosaurus poses with an elephant for scale. From Flammarion (1886).

Flammarion’s book is a landmark work for depictions of prehistoric life, containing a mix of old and new restorations that went some way to relieving the drought of new reconstructions in the late 19th century. Perhaps reflecting Flammarion’s outsider position from sauropod research, his choice of sauropod was not something well-known like Cetiosaurus, Camarasaurus or Brontosaurus, but the obscure “Atlantosaurus”. This was one of the first discovered Morisson Formation sauropods but, on account of its scrappy remains, it was on its way to becoming a historic footnote in 1886. Today, Atlantosaurus is generally considered a nomen dubium. Obscure taxon choice aside, here, finally, was a sauropod in the flesh. And, all things considered, the reconstruction was pretty good. Marsh’s 1883 Brontosaurus reconstruction was featured in the same book and its shared DNA with the Atlantosaurus illustration is obvious. In the accompanying text, Flammarion describes several sauropods in essentially accurate ways: as gigantic, long-necked animals with small heads, of herbivorous character, and as denizens of terra firma, not lakes and swamps. This was a pretty progressive take on sauropods that built on ideas expressed by Phillips, and they stand in contrast with sauropods’ fast approaching 20th-century relegation to semi-aquatic life.

In a different universe, Flammarion’s Atlantosaurus and other novel reconstructions were the start of a new wave of palaeoartworks based on updated science and newly discovered species. Alas, in our universe, the new artworks in Flammarion’s book made little impression on palaeoart development, and didn’t shake older takes on extinct animals from their foothold in 19th century palaeoart. Even as the 20th century loomed, Hawkinsian, Kuwassegian and Copeian dinosaurs were still populating artworks of Deep Time. From a historic perspective, Flammarion’s Atlantosaurus is more of an Easter egg than the moment sauropod palaeoart truly arrived.

The 1890s: the dam bursts

Joseph Smit's 1892 Brontosaurus, from Henry Hutchinson's Extinct Monsters: A Popular Account of Some of the Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life. Although not as influential or well known today as the sauropod artworks of Charles Knight, the success of Hutchinson's book would have made this the first life restoration seen by many people, certainly in the English speaking world.

It was only as the sandgrains in the 19th century hourglass ran dry that a collective epiphany about sauropods struck the minds of museum developers, artists and book authors around the world. Finally, after more than a half-century of avoiding sauropod palaeoart, flesh restorations of long-necked dinosaurs entered the mainstream during the 1890s. But, again, it was not America, with its embarrassment of sauropod fossils, that instigated this. Rather, it was a revived British interest in palaeoart that championed sauropods, with one book, in particular, cresting a new wave of new palaeoartistic reconstructions: Henry Neville Hutchinson’s 1892 ;Extinct Monsters: A Popular Account of Some of the Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life. This featured illustrations by the Danish artist Joseph Smit based on Marsh's skeletal diagrams and the results were so successful that Extinct Monsters was reprinted several times over the next two decades. It was also eventually repackaged with another Hutchinson book, Creatures of Other Days. Smit illustrated both Diplodocus and Brontosaurus in these works, based on Marsh's groundwork, establishing their canonical presence in palaeoart from then onwards.

One of the most iconic palaeoart images of the late 19th century: Charles Knight's 1897 swamp-bound Brontosaurus and grazing Diplodocus. Knight's affiliation with the American Museum of Natural History and the publicity-hungry Henry Osborn brought palaeoart into a new era where dinosaurs would become increasingly dominant art subjects, and sauropods would become superstars.

Shortly after, American palaeoart finally woke up to the splendour of sauropods. The American Museum of Natural History, under the supervision of Henry Osborn, had identified the power of palaeoart as an educational, promotional and commercial tool and realised the role dinosaurs could play in this campaign. The result were sauropod illustrations by Charles Knight, which surely rank as the most famous of all early sauropod artworks. Knight’s iconic 1897 Brontosaurus and Diplodocus in a swamp, produced with direction from Osborn, was among the first of these works, but a lesser-known sketch of a snorkelling Amphicoelias was produced around the same time. The latter is notable for being produced under guidance from Cope, who sketched a rough version for Knight to replicate. Cope’s choice to depict the fragmentarily known Amphicoelias, which he named in 1878, over a better-known Marsh species is surely an instance of their old rivalry dying hard. Many Knight images of sauropods would follow in the next few decades.

In the last year of his life, Edward Drinker Cope tutored Charles Knight in the anatomy of extinct animals so as to help Knight better understand his palaeoart subjects. Among the images they worked on together was this 1897 scene of Amphicoelias, which Cope sketched out for Knight to replicate. Note the interesting stripes and spotting used here. Although now standard in palaeoartworks, such intricate patterning was rare in 19th century palaeoart.

And it’s here, at the turn of the 20th century, that our story picks up with more familiar beats. After their slow adoption into palaeoart and popularised palaeontology, sauropods quickly appeared everywhere dinosaurs were mentioned. American museums put sauropods front and centre of their galleries and, courtesy of Andrew Carnegie, many museums around the world soon sported Diplodocus in their dinosaur halls. Gertie the Dinosaur and the 1925 adaption of The Lost World, where Brontosaurus pioneered cinematic monsters smashing cities for our amusement, made sauropods the focus of early dinosaur films. Life-sized models of sauropods appeared in Europe by 1910 and then in the United States and Russia in the 1930s. Around all this, artists like Knight, Smit, Heinrich Harder and Alice Woodward cemented sauropods into the mainstream palaeoart canon. Surely helped by their palaeoartistic popularity, sauropods had become cultural icons almost overnight.

The story of sauropods entering palaeoart canon is more than a tale of 19th century attitudes to reconstructing extinct animals: it’s also a case study in the vagaries of science communication and gatekeeping. We often discuss why certain facets of science, like dinosaurs, are so popular, while others are not. How much of this reflects the inexplicable, innate interestingness of a topic, and how much of it is manufactured? Many of us would agree that sauropods are some of the most fascinating and spectacular animals to have ever lived but, even when their anatomy was well-realised, this was not enough for mainstream culture to adopt them passively. Even artists and scientists who knew about them were not falling over themselves to restore and promote them, and it really wasn’t until individuals at the turn of the 20th century wanted, or needed, to promote sauropods that they began their journey towards being palaeontological icons. I’ve argued in the past that dinosaurs have a certain fundamental appeal that draws us to them, and that might be true, but stories like this show that our awareness and access to spectacular, easy-sell science, such as that of the biggest dinosaurs to have ever existed, is managed by a privileged few.

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