Friday, May 12, 2017

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs (Books for Young Explorers)

Once again, Charles Leon has sent me a real peach. Dinosaurs (part of the National Geographic Society's Books for Young Explorers series) was published in 1972 and features artwork by Jay H Matternes, with text from Kathryn Jackson. Matternes was an accomplished palaeoartist, but given that his speciality and main area of interest was apparently fossil primates (particularly hominids), his name will be unfamiliar to many dinosaur enthusiasts (it certainly was to me). In spite of this, his work here is beautifully painted and easily a match for near enough anything else around at the time.

According to his website, Matternes worked with a great number of illustrious clients, from Nat Geo to Time to all manner of natural history museums. Based on his talents here alone, it's easy to see why. The illustrations here are all very retro now, of course, and typically early '70s in many respects - in the underdeveloped musculature of the dinosaurs, their often tail-dragging postures, and so on. However, it's the appreciation of fine detail, the often surprising dynamism of the pieces, and the entirely naturalistic feel of the animals that let us know there's an accomplished artist at work.

But before we get to all that, let's just take a moment to appreciate these excellent 1970s fashions. Rockin' those stripy trousers there, kids.

Our story begins, as it is wont to do, in the Triassic. A herd of Placerias-like beasties are hanging around a swamp, trying to avoid the attentions of a big-headed smiley fellow. At the lower edge of this scene - leading us off over the next page and on to the Mesozoic adventures to follow - are a pair of generic 'thecodonts' (possibly based on Lagosuchus or Euparkeria). Tellingly, the thecodonts seem to have had the most detail lavished upon them; they feel better textured and more solidly three-dimensional than the other animals in the scene. Which isn't to say that the whole thing isn't beautifully painted, not to mention remarkably peaceful-feeling. That can't last.

No sooner have the 'thecodonts' had a chance to evolve into true dinosaurs, than they are snapped up by some prowling phytosaur by the water's edge. (Of course, these days Saltopus is thought to have been a dinosauriform rather than a 'true' dinosaur. Sucks for Saltopus.) I would mention that the attention to detail on the phytosaur here (crater nostrils!) is commendable, but I'm being far too distracted by the water. That water's gorgeous. I might even be tempted to go for a swim if it wasn't quite so rust-coloured.

Now we're into more solidly dinosaurian territory (except for Teratosaurus).The plateosaurs are fine and dandy for the time, but I love the angry Coelophysis in the lower right. Crouched down, tail whipping in the air, mouth wide open, it's spoiling for a fight.

Perhaps my least favourite piece is this one featuring a merry band of very Knightian brontosaurs, trudging boringly off into the water to escape Allosaurus' clutches. At first glance, there isn't a lot that elevates this above a typical Knight/Burian clone, but the fantastic work done on the sky and water in particular does demonstrate a superior artist at work. Hey, dinosaurs weren't his speciality.

And now we come to the main reason I opted to write a post about this book rather than one of the many others Charles has sent me recently - a brachiosaur with a rainbow. Well, almost a rainbow. Again, at first glance, one might be tempted to write this off as another Burian knock-off (even if the brachiosaur is happily standing on dry land). However, note all the small things - the carefully shaded muscle tone, the intricately detailed head, and the single claw on each hand. And again, the sky. I love a good sky.

On to the Late Cretaceous, and the skies aren't as spectacular, but the above piece is one of my absolute favourites. It's just plain gorgeous to look at - the animals' skin textures are handled beautifully, with any number of lifelike folds, wrinkles and bony nodules, and for the time they are superb from an anatomical standpoint. I mean, Styracosaurus actually appears to have a neck and defined muscles, rather than simply being a large tube attached to four smaller, stubbier tubes. The background details are especially superb in this one - the trees are beautiful, of course, but notice also small details such as the tiny mammals directly below the Styracosaurus. Lovely.

And so to Rexy. The head may look a little strange, but this is a very forward-thinking restoration for the early 1970s, and well-researched with it. Note in particular the appropriately tiny arms (by no means a given even now), firmly horizontal posture and birdlike feet. While the muscles are rather weedy (typical of pre-Dino Renaissance thinking), this is a portrait of an alert, active predator.

Ankylosaurus, meanwhile, is also quite typical in being a "Palaeoscincus"-style mish-mash of nodosaurid and ankylosaurid features (the shoulder spikes are very Edmontonia). In spite of this, this is another very good restoration from a time when ankylosaurs tended to be depicted as short-tailed grumpy pineapples with four feet, but no legs.

Unfortunately, the book's hadrosaurs are still web-footed water-dwellers feeding on soft 'n' mushy material, but at least they're well painted; the wonderful pebbly skin texture on the foreground individual reminds me of Bernard Robinson's work, only with rather more anatomical accuracy. In spite of being so ostensibly trope-tastic (angry geography, aquatic hadrosaurs, Pteranodon overhead etc. etc.) this is still a very convincing-looking scene. Just don't mention the fact that the animals depicted here predated T. rex by millions of years (although to be fair, Rexy isn't actually in the painting).

Monoclonius didn't live alongside Rexy either, but it hasn't stopped the two animals sparring over the years in palaeoart (and short films). Here, Rexy attempts to intimidate the ceratopsians with his birdlike strut and gaping maw, but they're having none of it. The flatter-than-Flevoland landscapes do get a bit tedious, but you've got to admire any work from 1972 that features a T. rex that almost looks like it was painted a good 20 years later.

Since the centrosaurs aren't budging, Rexy decides to tackle something twice as large and with a bad temper. As you do.

Yes, it's the front cover again. This painting doesn't quite feel of a piece with the others; the style seems to have changed, and the depiction of T. rex, formerly consistent, suddenly sports obvious differences (it's not even the same colour). It's gorgeously painted, but feels more 'retro' than the rest of the book. I'd hazard a guess that it was painted some years beforehand, and recycled here. It feels more like a standalone piece, with finer detail throughout, than the others (not to mention the fact that it seems weirdly familiar). If anyone has a clue, then let me know...

And finally...the endpapers, just as a reminder of what most other palaeoart was like at the time. Drag them tails, boys.


  1. Ack! I remember this book bit like a lot of these lost childhood tomes their specific titles get lost.

    I loved this one, especially that gory apocalyptic victory of the Rex that has a series "Only God Forgives" look to it.

  2. Superb paintings! I don't remember this wonderful book and I wonder how I missed it. In the endpapers especially you see the dinosaurs portrayed as erect, dynamic animals, which must have been forward thinking for the time. As for the whole Allosaurus-about-to-munch-a-brontosaur-that-hasn't-quite reached-the -deep-water meme, how did anyone imagine that a 30 foot allosaur could take down a creature more than twice its size?

  3. Oh man, this was the book I checked out of my school library in first grade (most every week). Going to have to go find a used copy now...

  4. I constantly had this checked out of my elementary school library too. I just loved how fully rendered the dinosaurs and landscapes were; a wonderful, liquid-y, near reality. I remember a classmate and my self on the school bus loudly singing the theme of the Rankin-Bass King Kong cartoon at the cover of this book held in our laps--in our minds somehow celebrating the king tyrant lizard. ....the weird shit kids do...
    BTW, the triceratops statue the kids are on was (a Sinclair Worlds Fair model I think) was right across from the front steps of Smithsonian Natural History Museum at the time this book was published, and also not far from the National Geographic museum. My parents took many pictures of me on top of it too--probably attired similarly to the kids in the book.

  5. This was one of my favorites as a child as well! It definitely had a tactile realism missing from most of the other dinosaur books available at the local library.

  6. This book is nothing short of unique,the narration never tries to pack elaborated scentific stuff on to the text, the landscapes are incredible and very realistic indeed (i feel like i have been to those lakes before)and the dinosaurs are so dynamic and warm blooded for the time. It's a pity there's almost no stegosaur

  7. Uncle Beazley! That Triceratops used to stand in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History at the National Mall. I used to play on him when I was a kid (a bit later, early '80s).

    More here:

    1. Man, memories... I wrote about him here almost 7 years ago. Yikes.

    2. I have many fond memories of my dad taking me to the museum and me clambering all over him!

  8. This one and Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles were two of my favorites when I was a kid. I feel like they were basically the same book with different illustrations.

  9. Matternes is one of my favorite paleoartists - his murals in the mammal area of the Smithsonian are fantastic! I've never seen these paintings of his, this is wonderful. I'd love to see how he'd paint it over again with the new science and so much more experience.

  10. I've flown over Flevoland in a Cessna. Believe me, NOTHING is flatter than Flevoland

  11. I've been driven through it. I find its unnatural flatness...disturbing.

  12. This book is nothing short of unique,the narration never tries to pack elaborated scentific stuff on to the text, the landscapes are incredible and very realistic indeed


  13. That 'thecodont' is certainly based on Euparkeria, and the smiley taxon is Erythrosuchus.

  14. Matternes is one of my all time favorite paleoartists since I discovered his paintings in a book at my aunt's house when I was a kid. A framed poster of his Alaskan landscape during the Ice Age has been in my wall for several years now. In my experience, his works were never easy to come by, and this is the first time I see the contents of this book, and I must say that his dinosaurs are a huge disappointment, and here's why: Take a look at his prehistoric mammals reconstructions from his Smithsonian murals, the ones I'm son fond and familiar with and you'll see what I mean:

  15. I cant believe I (you) finally found this book! This was by far my favorite childhood book, and thanks to your blog post and wonderful photos, it will be back on my shelf very soon! I really love the artwork in this book! Thank you again!


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