Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaurs – Part 4

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Hello again! It’s been a while, but our deep submersion into Jan Sovák’s artwork as it appears in The Great Dinosaurs continues today! For those who missed it, we’ve already looked at the theropods, sauropods and ornithopods featured in this massive book. That beings us to the ceratopsians! This isn’t the first time we’re doing a ceratopsian-centered article at LITC, so I’m sure we’re all comfortable with them. Let’s pick up where we left off!

Here’s a herd of Pachyrhinosaurus in the distance, similar to the titanosaur scene seen in part 2. While it’s a nice painting as always, I’m not sure how I feel about the big giant honkin’ volcano in the background. It’s such a dinosaur cliché! But don’t we all have our indulgences? It’s meant to be a symbolic illustration of the increased volcanic turmoil that characterized the Late Cretaceous.

Let’s look at some ‘topsids up close. This is a family of Anchiceratops having a splash – rarely does Sovák illustrate a single animal, preferring to depict interactions, situations, little stories. Once again, it’s a marvellous piece of palaeoart. I’m running out of superlatives here. One feels like one could reach out and stroke the adult animal’s nose (and that it would be ill-advised to do so). The only times I’ve run into Anchiceratops before was in Dinosaurs! Magazine, and in the Dodson/Barlowe book on The Horned Dinosaurs. I wonder if the Canadian authorship is the reason so many of Sovák’s best pieces depict Canadian animals, or if that’s just because there’s so many ceratopsids from Canada.

For some reason, this piece always stayed with me. It’s always one of the first images that comes to my mind when thinking of this book. The text makes much of the fact that, in the Mesozoic, the moon was closer to the Earth so it would appear larger in the night sky. I doubt that the effect would be this dramatic, but it certainly emphasizes how alien the world of the dinosaurs would seem to us, especially with the rest of the environment so blurry and dreamlike. There’s even some purple in there! As for the animals: these are extremeliy speculative reconstructions of Eoceratops, a ceratopsid identified from minimal remains. Sovák imagines them as Triceratops-like, but the fossils were later attributed to Chasmosaurus. With all those ceratopsids, occasionally one gets the feeling that every scrap gets its own genus. The left animal’s head, shown in full frontal view, looks a bit wonky, but that’s what animals are like sometimes.

There’s also an actual Chasmosaurus piece, and it’s a spectacular one. What natural violence is left to show if you’ve already done volcanoes, hurricanes and blizzards? Thunderstorms, of course! Once again, Burian’s shadow looms large – the animal on the left looks so much like the Chasmosaurus by Burian – who, for his part, based his on Robert Bakker’s – that I refuse to believe it’s a coincidence. Sovák is treading the line between homage and epigonism here. Braving the elements with a determined look, these animals have a hardened grittiness to them that also characterized so much of Burian’s work.

This one – Centrosaurus – was considered striking enough to be on the back cover. It’s absolutely beautiful, so different from your average palaeoart in style, colour palette and atmosphere. In contrast to the alien environment inhabited by the Eoceratops, this landscape looks all too familiar, gounding this strange beast deeply in reality. If I walk far enough out of my own town, the landscape looks not unlike this, give or take a few power lines and distribution centres. Wading through reedy wetlands in the foggy morning light, accompanied by birds, this Centrosaurus gives off an almost pastoral vibe. Did the avian dinosaurs already look this modern around this time?

Styracosaurus fights off some dromaeosaurs. If the quality of this scan seems lesser to you, that’s because it is: most pictures in the book cover at least a whole page, but some – like this one – are printed much smaller. I wonder who made those choices and why. Perhaps Sovák himself, any of the authors or the book’s visual editor felt that this was a lesser piece and therefore not worth its own page. If that was the case, well… they weren’t wrong. The anatomy of the animals is not as well-observed as it is elsewhere – the left dromaeosaur in particular is pretty dodgy – and there’s a definite lack of detail. Nice bit of bursting sunlight though.

Believe it or not, here’s Pachyrhinosaurus again! It was a pretty new discovery at the time and the idea that the bony boss on its nose would support a keratinous horn, similar to that of other centrosaurines, was still pretty popular. The animal comes looking out a little less distinct as a result. I do like that the artist and author were willing to speculate and anticipate new ideas on animal appearance, even if some of those ideas later fell out of favour. It’s what the best palaeoart of today does.

This image, too, appears tiny in the book, which belies the celebrity status of the depicted animals: here’s Sovák’s take on the legendary showdown between Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus. I was not entirely convinced by the Torosaurus vs. T. rex piece earlier, and I’m similarly lukewarm to this. That Rexy is remarkably shapeless, like something out of the sixties instead of the nineties. The Triceratops, while servicable, don’t really pop and the whole piece is somewhat drab and lifeless compared to Sovák’s other action pieces. The flavour text tells us we’re supposed to be looking at a juvenile T. rex foolish enough to try to attack two full grown trikes. I’m guessing this will end just like Wayne Barlowe’s take on the Hell Creek showdown.

Let’s add some pachycephalosaurs to the mix, why not. Špinar and Currie at this point still grouped the boneheads in with the ornithopods, but I think they feel much more at home here. These are Stygimoloch – now understood to be subadult specimens of Pachycephalosaurus but (reasonably) considered a separate genus at the time – and look, there’s no full-frontal headbutting! Instead, the authors commit to the now more plausible view that most of their combat was rutalized and more about hitting each other in the flanks instead of on the head.

Wow, has it been four articles now? Have we ever spent so long talking about a single book illustrated by a single artist? Only one major group of dinosaurs left to go! Can you guess what it is? For one last time, The Great Dinosaurs will return.

15 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaurs – Part 4”

  1. “Did the avian dinosaurs already look this modern around this time?”

    I’d point to any of the galloanseres if I were you, but we didn’t have as complete picture when this was made, IIRC.

    Reminds me of how to completely ignored the fact that there was a god damn heron in the Late Cretaceous. How did you ever even comment on it?

    1. I think that Mustafa is referring to the heron in Barlowe’s Chasmosaurus illo in The Horned Dinosaurs. There’s also a Cretaceous heron in Stout’s The Dinosaurs )1981).

  2. There are a lot of subtle touches which show me that Sovak was basing his reconstructions perhaps a bit too much off rhinos. Especially the nose of the Anchiceratops and the proportions of the Chasmosaur juvenile are telling. Not to mention the feet.

    1. Yes, I quite agree. I was wonderering if I should remark upon that. I find that if you look closely at most ceratopsid reconstructions, there always tends to be at least some rhino in there. Take a look back at Barlowe: he gives his ceratopsians rhino nostrils.

  3. Re birds: Yes, it’s possible that crown birds had evolved by the time of Centrosaurus. In fact, it’s plausible that early crown birds mostly adopted shorebird-like niches, so they might not even have looked far off from those depicted in the illustration.

  4. The Chasmosaurus sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. Noticed that Bakker’s recon and its two, err, descendants weirdly has all the episquamosals squished onto the bottom of the frill, leaving this enormous gap between them and the two on top. Some google image diving quickly confirmed this was a genuine palaeomeme back in the day. Found across oldschool stock images, postage stamps, chinasaurs, a fullscale model and the old DinoRiders toy, among other miscellaneous art. I just assumed it originated from Bakker’s piece; wouldn’t be the first such lineage rooted on him. But the anatomy is clearly displayed in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), a year before Bakker’s 1971 piece. Possible it started there, but equally possible it goes back further. Trying to find 1960s Chasmosaurus reconstructions proved unfruitful, so I figured I might as well ask here – you guys know old dino art better than anyone. Any chance you guys can see the trail better?

    1. Fascinating! Who are the authors of the 1970 book? Because the only book with that title I know about is that 1980s John Sibbick book that Marc recently did a livestream about.
      I don’t know about any 1960s Chasmosauruses – serious dino books in general were just much rarer back then.

          1. My copy’s boxed up in storage. I can get to it but, due to the lockdown, I don’t have easy access to a scanner.

        1. Damn, I’m getting old. I just remembered the beautiful painting by Walter Ferguson of a Phobosuchus attacking a young Chasmosaurus. I first saw it in Colbert’s Dinosaurs: Their Discovery and Their World (1961) as a b/w plate although Colbert reproduces it in color about 20 years in Dinosaurs: An Illustrated History.

      1. Ah, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is a popular movie, not a book. One that featured a stop motion Chasmosaurus.

        As far as I can tell, this leaves four possibilities. 1) Bakker’s piece is actually from the late 60s, not 1971; 2) Bakker was involved in the production of the movie; 3) Bakker referenced a popular movie for his anatomy (seems unlikely); or 4) both based their Chasmosaurus on a pre-existing work. I’m inclined to think such a pre-existing work can’t have been a paper, for a movie like this seems hardly likely to look there for its information.

        1. Ok, just to clear up some confusion, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is the title of BOTH a 1970 movie and an un-related 1985 book authored by David Norman, illustrated by John Sibbeck.

          The movie was produced by Hammer Films (a British studio), with stop-motion models by Jim Danforth, who had worked with Ray Harryhausen on the previous movie, One Million BC. (1966). The dinosaur models in both show a similarity in style to Harryhausen’s other work. (The Chasmosaurus is not identified as such in the film; indeed, RH rarely gave specific names to ANY of his prehistorics.) This does not fit with what I can find of RB’s career at this time.

          Is the 1971 piece by Bakker that you’re referring to his Ph.D thesis, which I don’t have access to, or the article in Nature (1972 July)?

          BTW, the Styracosaurus piece was used as the cover illo for the paperback edition of Colbert’s Age of Reptiles, and I think I’ve seen the Tyrannosaurus/Triceratops battle someplace else, also.

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