There is nothing better than getting your hands on a forgotten, but important, volume of vintage palaeoart, and, folks, palaeoart doesn’t come much more vintage than this. The work featured today precedes Burian, Zallinger and Parker, but in many ways was ahead of its time. When you think of “stylized” palaeoart, you might think of modern figures such as Raven Amos, Johan Egerkrans or our own David Orr, but this book shows that even in the early 20th century there was palaeoart out there that was something other than the usual quasi-realistic style popularized by Charles Knight.
Maria Hubrecht (1865-1950), a daughter of patricians, was a first-wave feminist, suffragette, advocate for the education of girls and mostly self-thought artist. Late in life, Hubrecht developed an interest in natural history. Hubrecht was in her sixties when she wrote and illustrated Verdwenen Werelden (“Lost Worlds”), her legacy project.
In the 1920’s, Hubrecht volunteered to paint seven palaeontological murals for the hall of the Girl’s Lyceum – what is now the Joke Smit College – In Amsterdam. Those murals closely resemble the paintings in this book, which she started working on after the murals’ completion. The book was ambitious in scope; she intended for it to become an internationally relevant textbook. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t quite play out. Mostly completed by 1931, due to troubles related to the economic crisis and the war, the book was delayed for many years and only became available in 1947, a few years before Hubrecht’s death. Written in Dutch, it never got translated into another language, despite good reviews.
Recently, there’s been a bit of an uptick in interest for Hubrecht’s work. Her Amsterdam murals were lovingly restored in 2017, and some of her paintings are featured in the fantastic palaeoart exhibition at Teyler’s Museum. The latter is where I first was made aware of Hubrecht, and I couldn’t resist tracking down a dusty old copy of Verdwenen Werelden for myself.
This Permian scene isn’t the first image in the book, but it’s a good one to start with. Hubrecht’s style is completely unlike any other vintage palaeoart I’ve ever seen. One contemporary reviewer compared her style to Japanese or Balinese art, while I am also vaguely reminded of Medieval tapestry. Hubrecht never got a formal art education: her work retains a peculiar childlike naiveté. That doesn’t mean it’s incompetent. Hubrecht was quite keen on reconstructing the animals, plants and landscapes as rigorously as then-current science allowed. She travelled all over Europe and spoke to many experts on palaeontology, palaeobotany and geology. To her credit, she is upfront about the palaeoartists whose work inspired hers: Heilmann, Abel, Jaekel and Knight are all duly given shout-outs.
The most eye-catching creatures in this painting are a trio of Moschops, that once-ubiquitous but now mostly forgotten bulky synapsid. The other animals are similarly chunky. Inostrancevia (its name hilariously Dutchified to “Inostranzewia”), with a pretty dopey grin, has gotten a particularly mammalian treatment. The creature below is the parareptile Pareiasaurus, and this one invokes a giant, grumpy toad more than anything. Hubrecht herself can’t help but comment on how the creatures from this time period “have little that is appealing to us” but she proves herself wrong by making this guy so lovable. Look at those warty bumps and those chubby arms! I want one.
A very typical Hubrechtian touch is the aquatic creature popping out of the lake, meant to be Archegosaurus, a vaguely croc-shaped temnospondyl.
Hubrecht doesn’t so much intend to give a realistic view of real prehistoric environments, as much as a scholarly overview of what was known to science at the time. That leads to crowded compositions such as this one. She puts as much as she can in there. This is the Triassic desert; its relative lack of foliage makes the animals stand out more. For some of the more lush jungle scenes, looking at them becomes a game of “Where’s Wally?”
The plateosaurs – properly bipedal, score! – remind me of monitor lizards, especially the one on the right. The Nothosaurus in the lower left corner is awesome. It’s looking freakish and dramatic with that elongated, toothy snout, that sinister eye and the waves crashing on the shore.
All these Triassic weirdos make this look almost like a Jheronimus Bosch painting. Where to start? Would you believe that the reddish lizard-looking thing, running on its hind legs at the top left here, is meant to be Massospondylus? It’s identified as a theropod in the book. The sauropodomorph Massospondylus has a long, convoluted history of being misclassified, going back to Richard Owen himself, but I never knew it once had a small, awkward theropod phase. We’ve all been there, am I right? Lystrosaurus and Mystriosuchus look a lot more recognizable by comparison, but my favourite of course is the absolutely magnificent tailless, hook-mouthed thing between those two. It’s identified as Rutiodon, a phytosaur. Phytosaurs are famously weird, but Hubrecht really takes it to the next level here!
Here’s the big, famous Morrison scene. The original can be seen in Haarlem as I write this. The four water-dwelling sauropods (must… resist… sex lake joke) are the stars of the show. They are all meant to be different taxa, by the way. From front to back, these are Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus and Brontosaurus.
Their colours are more muted, dark and dull than those on the original Tempus Jurassicum mural this was based on. At the same time, they are more finely detailed. There’s some Knight in there, especially the Brontosaurus in the back. The Brachiosaurus is based on Othenio Abel. The difference in size between the sauropods and the other animals, combined with the forced perspective, make this one of the liveliest and prettiest paintings in the book.
Two big theropods are hiding in the back together. Allosaurus is carried over faithfully from Knight, hunched over his carcass, while a more original – and considerably stranger – Ceratosaurus looks on jealously. Also note the bird-grabbing Ornitholestes on the left – another instance of that Meme of Memes, started, again, by Knight.
The Stegosaurus pair doesn’t come from Knight, but rather from Othenio Abel. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the newer painting from the book does seem to have picked up more Knightly influences compared to the older mural version. I wonder why? I have my private guesses, but that’s all I’ll say about this for now.
The Cretaceous dinosaurs have been spread over two paintings, both wonderfully lush, with this one showing only herbivores. The Triceratops is lifted wholesale from Knight, no surprises there. Much more idiosyncratic, and thus more interesting, are the Scolosaurus and, especially, the funky red-and-blue Corythosaurus. Hubrecht took the description “duck-billed dinosaur” rather too literal, as evidenced by this and especially the hadrosaur from the Tempus Cretaceum mural (pictured further below). Not only does this one look and swim like a duck, it looks like it would quack like one!
As for the Scolosaurus: this was a brand-new discovery at the time, so it’s possible we’re looking at one of the first-ever reconstructions of it. It’s certainly a fantastically odd one. It’s hard to tell what’s going on here. It has that belly-dragging sprawl that we have come to expect of our vintage Scolosaurus art, but its face is bizarre, pretty much unreadable. Its tail is a flimsy thing – good luck fighting off tyrannosaurs with that – and I’m not quite sure how that left arm is supposed to connect to the body. In the text, Hubrecht has a grand old time imagining how Scolosaurus‘ dragging belly must have bulldozed everything in its path – she was definitely not above some sensationalism.
On the left, we can barely make out Polacanthus and arboreal Hypsilophodon, while Struthiomimus in orange and green dominates the background. The blotchy, neckless ankylosaurs on the right are “Palaeoscincus“, a wastebasket taxon that was painted quite a lot back in the day (Knight also painted one, after this was made) but has fallen out of favour thanks to its lack of diagnosable features. A misplaced-in-time and very batlike Pterodactylus is well-hidden among the leaves, but once you zoom in you get another sense of Hubrecht’s great attention to detail.
Most of the dinosaur scenes Hubrecht painted have this dark, oppressive, swampy atmosphere, with the animals often hard to make out in their dense surroundings. There’s no space, no depth, no horizon (exept for a small bit of sea in the corner). You can almost feel the suffocating humidity of the deep jungle, as it waits to swallow you. “What horrible monsters the Cretaceous period has shown us, how soulless the look in their eyes!” she exclaims in the text. Her version of the Mesozoïc is a hostile, primordial, almost alien world filled with “dumb”, “ponderous” and “terrible” monsters, a dark age the Earth needed to go through as part of the March of Progress towards a more mammal-friendly world.
Speaking of monsters. Is that not the most surreal Tyrannosaurus rex you ever did see? Although Knight had tried his hand at reconstructing Sexy Rexy a few times already, Hubrecht obviously made her own interpretation of the great beast, and I’m glad she did. Its humanoid, upright stance with crooked legs that don’t quite seem up for the job make it all the stranger, as its crocodile tail flops behind it. The bumps on its neck might be meant to be spiky bits or osteoderms, but I can’t help but read them as skin folds as the corpulent king twists his neck in an unnatural position. Never has T. rex looked more like Godzilla – decades before the fact. In fact, come to think of it….
Uncanny, isn’t it?
The Iguanodon pair, fleeing for dear life from the Tyrannosaurus, is based on Gerhard Heilmann, who made a number of different versions of two running Iguanodons. Hubrecht has made them even more reptilian and iguana-like (though she has ditched the actual iguana colour scheme she used in the mural). Trachodon is also there, seemingly unbothered by the T. rex there. It’s much less duck-beaky than both its mural counterpart and the Corythosaurus. Finally, the Pteranodon is copied from Abel – clearly Abel’s shadow has not been entirely cast off.
That’s it for the dinosaurs, but we are far from done with this incredible book. I’ve shown you only five of the thirty paintings that are in here. There is so much more, including Cenozoic pieces and aquatic scenes. Verdwenen Werelden will return!