Vintage Dinosaur Art: Vasily Vatagin (Part 1)

Vintage Dinosaur Art

After covering Konstantin Flyorov a few monts ago, I found there to be a lot of interest in vintage Russian palaeoart. There was a small but very interesting palaeoart scene in Soviet-era Moscow, linked to its tradition of animal and wildlife art, that is stylistically quite distinct from the western tradition.

Today, I want to give some attention to the original Russian palaeoartist: Vasily Alekseyevic Vatagin (Василий Алексеевич Ватагин, 1883 – 1969). Vatagin was a world traveller, a keen student of the natural world and a lifelong artist and is, from what I can tell, still beloved in his home country. Dinosaurs were not among his chief subjects; he was a wildlife and animal artist through and through, and also illustrated a number of novels. Nevertheless, he produced many palaeoart pieces over a long and fruitful career, mostly for Moscow’s State Darwin Museum, founded in 1907 by zoologists Aleksandr and Nadezhda Kohts. Aleksandr Kohts served as Vatagin’s scientific informer for the duration of both their careers.

Finding Vatagin’s work online has been relatively easy, finding information on him was considerably harder. Lescaze doesn’t mention him much, and all the image banks on Pinterest and random, dead Russian forums are of little help. My thanks and appreciation goes out to zoologist and artist Velizar Simeonovski for giving me some context to work with. Check out his art here!

Vatagin’s life and art are deeply intertwined with the history of Russia in the 20th century. In the early years of Kohts’ museum, when Russia was under czarist rule, his work was sketchy, graphic and mostly in greyscales. After the revolutions of 1917 and the establishment of the USSR, his work became more colourful and elaborate. After the Second World War, Vatagin began to focus more and more on sculpture, ceramics and ornaments.

So if it wasn’t obvious already, this Stegosaurus is very, very old. This image might coincide with Knight’s very earliest ones. This is definitely a giant lizard, dragging its eight-spiked tail around with crooked, sprawling limbs. I love the visible heft Vatagin gave it, as well as the parallel rows of very elaborate, spiked plates and the rows of knobbly bits on the back. He paid a lot of attention to how real lizards look, and scaled it up to what is, ultimately, a plausible creatue, even if nearly all details are outdated now. Vatagin’s early, graphic works like this were not intended for mass consumption in the museum, but more as accompaniment to written scientific work.

This is what Vatagin would produce if asked to make a dinosaur vista with mass appeal. This one is from his post-revolution middle period and meant to be displayed proudly in the Darwin Museum. You can see how science has marched on, too.

Just like his pupil Flyorov, Vatagin was a sylist, deeply influenced by the European movements of Impressionism and Fauvism. I could spend a long time picking apart the depicted dinosaurs (and I will) but we must first acknowledge just how artistic this is. The fine brush strokes, the colours, the hills, the plants, the backdrops, the animals. This is Capital “A” Art before it is any kind of scientific reconstruction. Any and all scientific inaccuracies should probably be forgiven on account of Vatagin and Kohts being Russian and therefore having no access to any dinosaur fossils. Most dinosaurs at the time were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and the Russian expeditions into Mongolia didn’t really kick off with big results until later.

That said. The sauropod. What immediately strikes me about this one is that it’s a giant tortoise. Do you see it? Its face is a dead ringer for an Aldabra tortoise. The feet look turtle-like, too. It’s a change of pace from all the elephantine sauropods we’ve seen, and it certainly shows Vatagin’s familiarity with wildlife. It certainly helps make the animal look convincing. The fact that it stands proudly upright on its limbs is certainly a big help in that regard.

The Stegosaurus is also considerably more sleek, upright and modern than the earlier one above. Its plates are staggered and its thagomizer has only four spikes. Vatagin gave it a nice long neck, which means it’s aged better than the ones Knight painted at the time. The Iguanodon is typical for its day, but again quite sleek and dynamic compared to later works by, say, Burian and Parker. I love the colour scheme with the red head, perhaps some inspiration was taken from the caiman lizards of South America? Lots of interesting details, from the arboreal lizard-like things (Hypsilophodon?), to the rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs, to the plesiosaurs on the left (Vatagin had long discussions with Kohts on whether or not plesiosaurs were able to go on land). All in all, this painting represents the peak of what Vatagin was capable of as a dinosaur artist.

Even more stylized and impressionistic is this painting in a set that is continued below and seems to have also appeared on postcards. This sauropod is more primitive than the one above, with a much more sprawling look like Harder’s. It seems to me like this was a big inspiration to Flyorov when he made his 1939 Jurassic scene; the flabby ridge in the back of the neck is the giveaway here.

This one is beautiful! Like I said, Vatagin’s Iguanodon (also seen in the “Jurassic” scene above) is really good for the time. Not as boldly coloured as the previous one, this major painting shows them living in a herd. A master of using blur to create a sense of depth, Vatagin does a good job of showing how huge and powerful this animal was, something that is easy to forget about Iguanodon.

Here’s a slightly older, more lizardlike Iguanodon, from what I guess I will call the postcard series, characterized by more bent limbs and slightly cartoonier proportions. Vatagin’s dinosaurs in this series have an interesting skin texture, almost like a grid of square scales. Even though this isn’t hyperdetailed like, say, Sibbick’s work, there’s still a sense of tangibility to these creatures. I like the enlarged snout, almost like a brachylophosaurin hadrosaur.

Here’s Vatagin’s early shot at Triceratops, and this one’s really interesting. The shape and texture of their bodies and especially their tails are distinctly crocodilian. A thick tail, broad, stout limbs and a ridge of thick osteoderms along their backs. Their claws are particulrly strange, very long and flat, like slabs of stone. I love how one of them is lying down, in the best B. W. Hawkins tradition. Vatagin masterfully shows the squashed shape of the lying animal, just like Hawkins’ Iguanodon and Megaloceros.

Here’s a later Triceratops from the postcard series. Though it no longer has those pronounced crocodylian characteristics of the earlier one, this one is still quite unusual. It has a very thick neck. Perhaps this was some speculation from Vatagin; maybe he felt like he needed to give the animal a big, strong neck to hold its heavy head up. What really stands out to me with this one is the unusual shape of the nose horn, long and pointy and with a bit of a curve to it. It’s rare for a palaeoartist to put so much emphasis on Triceratops‘ nose horn, but a horn like this was probably within the realm of possibility. This characteristic is shared across all of Vatagin’s Triceratops reconstructions I found, both the older and the newer ones. Vatagin seems quite fond of this animal, as it shows up a fair bit in his works.

After the war, the ageing Vatagin mostly left painting behind and turned his attention to sculpture. He rarely made dinosaurs again during this time, but occasionally a Triceratops-inspired little ornament like this would show up. I say “inspired”, because these are barely scientifically informed. They are fantastical creatures, dragons that simply draw inspiration from Vatagin’s background as a scientific artist.

This one is even less like a Triceratops and more like a dragon. In fact, Vatagin never used the word “dinosaur”. He referred to them as “dragons” or “monsters”, even in his correspondence with Kohts. The fantastical, imaginative aspect of these creatures was always more interesting to Vatagin than the scientific aspect.

Here’s Vatagin’s only known stab at Tyrannosaurus – or any big theropod, as far as I know – but what a Tyrannosaurus! Unashamedly grisly, gory and macabre, this piece shows old Rexy as a voracious, gluttonous monster that looks almost gleeful as it messily devours its prey. What this scan doesn’t do justice to is that, on the original, the blood is quite red while the rest of the illustration is in greyscale. You probably don’t need me to point out all the accuracies or innacuracies; it’s just a wonderfully bloody and stylish illustration, full of personality. Enjoy it for what it is. This is one of the few I can reliably date, to 1915, so it’s an early one, from the seminal years of the Darwin Museum, and produced only a few years after T. rex‘s discovery!

Vatagin is too great an artist to do justice to in one post, so stay tuned for more Russian dinosars – andotherprehistoricanimals – next time. Vasily Vatagin will return!

3 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: Vasily Vatagin (Part 1)”

  1. Thanks for sharing, these are so cool to see! The Iguanodon illustration really is beautiful, but… the one on the far right has its neck swiveled backwards really far, like an owl 😳
    I especially enjoy those draconic Triceratops sculptures, though! Their stylization is really awesome.

  2. Vatagin’s Triceratops were probably inspired by Knight’s Agathaumas based on all the body armor. The last sculpture even has the same long nose horn and short brow horns as Agathaumas.

  3. I’m very excited to hear that you’ll be covering more of Vatagin’s work, his work is really quite stunning. As you note, his ability to create believability and realism through the use of heft and pose is top notch. On Vatagin’s trike obsession: as someone who’s favorite dinosaur is also Triceratops, I can 100% relate to his fascination with these wonderful ceratopsians. I love his take on that nose horn! 🦏

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