on May 21, 2008
An overview of prehistoric life told through the principal features and concepts of Rudolph Zallinger's The Age of Reptiles mural, this new edition of the Peabody's guide to Zallinger's masterwork is a compilation of earlier material and new information contributed by the staff and scientists of the Yale Peabody Museum. It includes updated descriptions and identifying illustrations of the animals and plants depicted in the mural keyed to an included fold-out full-color poster, all enhanced with highlights from the Museum's distinguished history and rich collections.
Told here as well is Rudy Zallinger's story and, in his own words, the making of The Age of Reptiles, along with Yale Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art Vincent Scully's classic essay on the mural's place in the history of art.
on June 22, 2014
Those of you who have visited the Yale Peabody Museum know of the large mural "The Age of Reptiles" on the east wall of the dinosaur hall. This dry fresco painting, which is 110 long and 16 feet high was executed by artist Rudolph Zallinger from 1943-1947. It depicts large animal life (almost all reptilian) from the Devonian to the Late Cretaceous. In the mural, time advances from right to left, a consequence of the architecture of the hall. Seeing this painting always gives me chills. The animals look totally three-dimensional and the illusion of looking across enormous distances is compelling. Most people who were small children in the late 50's were first introduced to dinosaurs when they saw this mural in Life magazine and a subsequent book "The World We Live In." The Marx toy dinosaur series we enjoyed circa 1960 was heavily influenced by the mural; most of the dinosaurs even have the same poses.
There is no disputing that the science in "The Age of Reptiles" is 60+ years outdated. For example "Brontosaurus" (i.e. Apatosaurus) still has the wrong head and is wallowing in water. Generally speaking, we no longer think of dinosaurs as bloated, swamp-dwelling, tail-dragging, plodders with all four feet on the ground. Very few notice the plant life in the mural, but those depictions are also, sad to say, outdated. The painting is also a little strange by today's standards of paleoart in that the animals seem to be static and detached, and are not interacting with each other in any way. Zallinger did a second, somewhat smaller, mural at Yale, "The Age of Mammals" between 1961 and 1967 which is much more dynamic. To me it doesn't matter. "The Age of Reptiles" will always be the Sistine Chapel of Natural History, and I hope it is never "improved."
Anyway, Yale University produced a small spiral-bound book about the mural in 1990. I bought a copy the first time I visited Yale. There were the following sections:
"Creating the Mural" by Rudolph Zallinger.
"Life and Landscape in the Mural", which gives an explanation of each of the time periods in the mural.
"The Age of Reptiles as a Work of Art" by Vincent Scully.
A fold-out poster of the mural.
Somewhere in the 90's I lost my copy, but no matter, Yale produced a second edition in 2010, which I promptly bought as soon as I saw it. It is interesting to read again Zallinger's explanation of how he learned necessary animal anatomy from the Yale staff. The technical aspects of painting on an enormous surface, which Zallinger describes in detail, is especially interesting since I was recently exposed to the the high-tech, totally digital, method of mural-making that Karen Carr used for the new New Jersey Dinosaur mural at the Morris Museum. In contrast, the section byVincent Scully, who in 1990 was an art historian at Yale, is totally beyond me. Somehow he tries to link "The Age of Reptiles" to medieval art, especially that of Giotto. However, other than the fact that Zallinger and Giotto used a particular type of painting technique, any resemblance seems far fetched. What does Scully mean, for instance by saying "Zallinger's forms are, like those of Giotto, pre-atmospheric."? The section that is actually updated since 1990 is the second one, not surprising since we know so much more about the animals and plants of past eras than we did only 20 years ago. Changes in the science, e.g. the head of "Brontosaurus," are discussed in detail.
Of course, for those of a certain age, the fold-out poster alone is worth the price of of the book. I hope Yale eventually comes out with a book "The Age of Mammals."