I recently had the opportunity to wade into Project Gutenberg at work, and as one does I took a few minutes to type “paleontology” into the book search and see what popped up. There were a few titles I had never heard of or never seen in full, one of which being The Dinosaur Quarry by John Good, Theodore White, and Gilbert Stucker. The Vintage Dinosaur Art itch was irresistible!
The Dinosaur Quarry contains some interesting pieces by artists who have not been featured here before, primarily Ernest Untermann, “The Artist of the Uintas.” If you recognize the name but can’t quite place it, you may have come across it in Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll’s Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, which pays tribute to him.
Published in 1958 (when it sold for one American quarter), the book is a guide to the famous fossil site, delving into its discovery and preservation, deep past, and even its contemporary ecology. Most of its imagery is in the form of photographs, but there are some cool and seldom-seen paleoart pieces as well. I love the cover; these mid-century printing techniques are like design candy to me and I love the little details like the turtle and lizard and the naive, perspective-be-damned placement of the dinosaurs.
Ernest Untermann’s work is central to the book. As it turns out, that cover is a traced mashup of one of his illustrations, reproduced inside the book in black and white.
Likewise, the artwork on the title page is a trace, perhaps made by the same hand. Speaking of hands, the mystery tracer seems to have been particularly enraptured by Untermann’s sauropod manus. It overshadows even the great beast’s iconic neck. We now look at it and see something quite un-sauropod-like, of course. But at least it’s being lifted out of the water, unlike most sodden-footed sauropods of the time. Its form is reminiscent of Burian’s, but more theropod-like.
Ernest Untermann lived a large life, born in Brandenburg before the founding of Imperial Germany – back when it was still Prussia and when we Americans were fighting a civil war – and dying in Vernal, UT in 1956. Between that time, he was a newspaper editor, sailor, geologist, and director of a Milwaukee zoo. His first love seems to have been fossils and rocks, however, and though his early career as a scientist never left the ground, he never truly left his love of natural history behind and spent his later years resurrecting it on canvas.
While Untermann’s art can be hard to find online, we are fortunate to have a Youtube channel dedicated to him. It looks like it was a one-time effort by an admirer, as its seven videos were all published 10 years ago. Four are dedicated solely to Untermann. Here’s one featuring his dinosaur art, presented in brilliant 480p. At about the three minute mark, the black and white scene above is shown in its original color form. At about three minutes and forty seconds, we’re treated to a diplodocid tripping an allosaur with its whip-tail. Turn up the volume, light some incense, and be carried away.
Not the ideal presentation for his work, but we can get a sense of it. The brilliant colors are a delight. You can see traces of Charles R. Knight, and a few outright recapitulations of his poses and compositions. Some of the scenes are as dynamic as Leaping Laelaps. Stylistically it is sometimes reminiscent of Rudolf Zallinger. But there is a lot of original thought going on, and overall Untermann doesn’t seem beholden to anyone else. I really appreciate his dedication to environment, reflecting the love he poured into his Utah landscape paintings. I can only imagine the glee with which Ray Troll devoured his work as described in Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway.
There’s so much more that could be said about Untermann, from his multiple shipwrecks, to his sharp class-based critiques of science, and his staunch commitment to socialism and pacifism. Read more about him (and see some very small examples of his work) at Artists of Utah. It seems that his art is still is on exhibit at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum. For a peek at that exhibit, check out this blog post.
If you have any more information about Untermann or where else we might be able to see his work in person, leave a comment!