Vintage Dinosaur Art: What Is A Dinosaur – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

What Is A Dinosaur is a small, short book from 1961, in a series of “What Is It” books, explaining scientific concepts to children. It was illustrated by Maidi Wiebe and written by Daniel Q. Posin, a Chicago-based physicist and a well-known tevelvision personality in his time. Despite that pedigree, the book is your typical, child’s first rough guide to dinosaurs.

We’ve seen dozens of books like this, of course. Small books for children, containing all the dinosaur factoids we’ve heard a hundred times, illustrated by jobbing artists copying better ones, most of which couldn’t tell a Triceratops from a Diplodocus. Except… that’s not the case here.

Maidi Wiebe was the real deal. Between 1951 and 1962, she was the artist in residence at Chicago’s Field Museum, a position held previously by Charles Knight, for it is he. Unlike Knight’s, her work isn’t widely seen or even easy to find online, but from what I’ve seen she was a true-blue, talented and original palaeoartist, easily living up to her illustrious predecessor. She illustrated this book near the end of her Field Museum career, at the peak of her ability. That heroic brontosaur on the inner cover certainly looks like it means business.

My copy was evidently once the property of the Horace Mann School, who stamped their logo all over it. Vandalism!

Of course, all of that doesn’t mean that we’re getting something totally scientifically accurate here. The book is actually mostly unconcerned with placing the dinosaurs in their proper time period. Instead, Posin is much more insistent on emphaisizing the saurischian / ornithischian divide (which is now, of course, subject of much debate). Posin just calls them the fist and second order of dinosaurs. So a good old fashioned anarchonism stew like this is no problem to Posin, as long as we remember what their hips look like! It’s such an odd thing to focus on, but all dinosaur books do it to some degree, don’t they?

In any case, this is a really nice illustration by Wiebe, a lot more sketchbook-like, cartoony and characterful than the naturalistic paintings she was producing for the Field Museum. I particularly like the Donald Duckbill hadrosaurs, the Stegosaurus having an argument with a crocodile, and of course the lizardly T. rex. It’s the only image with prominent pterosaurs. One of the Pteranodon seems to be chasing a bug – we usually see them eating fish, but there’s no reason why an artist wouldn’t break the mold and show one eating insects, right?

Wiebe is particularly good at drawing fossils from “life”, as it were, and there’s more nicely detailed sketches of skulls and bones than you might expect from a children’s book. It was during Wiebe’s time that the Field Museum mounted Gorgeous George the Gorgosaurus, the world’s first freestanding dinosaur mount (FMNH PR308, later identified as Daspletosaurus). Wiebe reconstructed Gorgosaurus in three dimensions for the museum, and the mount might have inspired her to draw this. I don’t know if this is based on any mount in particular (Gorgeous George was eating a hadrosaur, not a sauropod) but it’s an impressively detailed piece in any case.

It’s time to set the scene for the Age of Reptiles. This book firmly belongs to the Great Swamp Lizards era of dinosaur art. Here’s another odd thing Posin chooses to focus on: this snake. I don’t necessarily associate snakes with the dinosaur age, especially since snakes are a recent arrival and their early Mesozoic ancestors would have had legs! Anyway, more awesome work from Wiebe here. The “crocodile” is clearly nothing of the sort. It’s obviously a phytosaur, perhaps based on Smilosuchus or something similar. I really love phytosaurs, and unlike some other artists who’ve drawn them. Wiebe does a pretty good job showing their fundamental weirdness. Even better is the Archaeopteryx with reasonably accurate claws!

‘Allo Allo! Bit of a shame that Wiebe’s Allosaurus is such a blatant variation on an old meme. It is no surprise that the shadow of Knight still looms large over Wiebe’s work, but she still does a decent job here of paying homage to him without this being an outright copy. Of course, Knight didn’t exactly invent the wheel either: his Allosaurus, hunched over a sauropod carcass, was based on the AMNH 5735 mount.

They can’t all be winners. Of the three rexes in this book, this one is the dodgiest. It’s not so much the upright stance or dragging tail that bothers me – it’s those gangly, overlong, awkward, three-clawed arms. It’s just not right. I’ve long harboured a feeling that T. rex‘ oft-mocked claws are a key to its success. Two small claws just look more interesting than three big ones. The Camptosaurus in the back is pretty bland, too.

That’s more like it! This slick hunchback with its serpentine tail has everything I want from my vintage Sexy Rexy. Its leathery skin and thick calves recall the sort of thing Burian was getting up to with his tyrannosaurs. Wiebe might have even been influenced by him, though there’s no way to tell. It’s chasing some prey off-scan, but it’s not going for a big Triceratops or Trachodon. Instead, it’s bullying some generic smaller theropods, showing that even they weren’t safe! The stormy background helps sell the drama. Again, great original work from Wiebe.

That was it for the theropods. As always, we’ll do the herbivores, which are clearly inferior, next time. What Is A Dinosaur will return!

By the way, if you want to know more about Maidi Wiebe, I’ve pretty much learned everything from this video by Emily Graslie.

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  • Reply
    Mustafa Ahmed
    March 29, 2020 at 9:20 am

    Are there any black or african palaeoartists you know of or have featured?

    • Reply
      Niels Hazeborg
      March 29, 2020 at 9:30 am

      I know of a few working now. Featuring some of them would be an excellent suggestion. I sadly don’t know of any who meet our 20-years-ago-mark for Vintage Dinosaur Art. But if you do, keep those suggestions coming! We’d love to bring more forgotten artists to your attention.

      • Reply
        Mustafa Ahmed
        March 29, 2020 at 6:13 pm

        Really, it seems the world has ignored any contributions african-americans have done for palaeontology to the the point of obscurity. One I can name off the top of my head though would be Louis Purnell of the Smithsonian, who worked with fossil mollusks, notably nautiloids.

        • Reply
          Niels Hazeborg
          March 30, 2020 at 3:40 am

          Interesting guy, that Louis Purnell. Did he make art, too?

  • Reply
    Stepan Jindra
    June 16, 2020 at 2:58 pm

    I think, that there are more links to Burian. But I can’t distinguish who inspired who (and also there is Knight). But Archaeopteryx color scheme is basicly the same, trachodons also rings a bell in my head.

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