Vintage Dinosaur Art: Tiere der Urwelt (Reichardt) – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

And it’s a proper Vintage Dinosaur Art as today, we’re looking at a rather obscure collection of paleoart from the very beginning of the 20th century. Let’s lay down some groundwork.

Collectable cards are of all ages. In my youth, in the schoolyard we would have traded, and beat each other senseless over, Pokémon cards (a fine tradition that continues to this day), or football cards (maybe baseball cards if you’re in the US?). Sometimes, there’s a fad around dinosaur collectables. In my native Netherlands there was a set of supermarket dinosaur cards in 2016 that briefly took the country by storm before being quietly forgotten, but not before I reviewed them on my old blog.

The collectable hype goes back probably further than you’d think, to at least the 19th century. Several series of cards, featuring animals and plants, dog breeds, military uniforms, landmarks, movie stars, you name it, would have been produced around the turn of the century to help sell chocolate, coffee, soap, sugar, etcetera. Today’s subject of discussion is a collection of cards produced by Theodor Reichardt Kakao in Germany under the title Tiere der Urwelt, or Prehistoric Animals. These would have come with a box of cocoa, you could collect them, you could trade them, you could probably beat people up and steal them.

Reichardt produced at least four series of thirty cards each between 1900 and 1920. There were other series by rivaling companies, too. The latter two Reichardt series were illustrated by Heinrich Harder, a fairly well-known name in classic palaeoart whom we’ll get back to soon enough. The first two however were illustrated by a mysterious individual known only as F. John.

Unlike Harder, F. John is not really a household name. Nothing is known of F. John, not their gender, nationality (despite the Anglophone name, it’s reasonable to assume they were German), background or any other works. All we have is thirty signed illustrations in this first series and thirty more in the second. So all we can do is look at these cards. Today, I will look at a choice of Tiere der Urwelt cards from the first series, estimated to have come out around 1902. In the next post, we will look at the second F. John series, and after that we’ll do the Heinrich Harder sets as well for good measure. Can, and should, we save F. John from obscurity?

I found all of these (as well as some of the background information) on a website called Copyright Expired. Some of these cards appeared in an early blog entry by David Orr on a previous version of this blog here, but David was told all of these were by Harder; some were, in fact, by John.

I’m reviewing these in order of their serial number, so it’s going to be slightly all over the place in terms of time and clades. For instance, card number one is a water monitor, which isn’t even extinct! This one, number 4, is a moa, armed with a white, goose-like head and a winning smile. I’m not going to pretend F. John is an unfairly forgotten master of scientific art; of the two artists working for Reichardt, Heinrich Harder is, undeniably, the more talented. But F. John brings something to the table that none of their contemporaries did; whimsy. A sense of humour, even. You won’t find any of that in the works of Harder, Heilmann, Knight or Smit (maybe a bit in Woodward if you look). Technical palaeoart was very serious at the time. If John was instructed to make collectable illustrations that would appeal to children, they understood the assignment. Nice tree.

Most of the first few cards in the series are mammals, but in card 7, we run into a proper dinosaur. Of course, if you are familiar with Charles Knight, you’ll recognize the influence of his 1897 “Agathaumas“, here. It’s rather shameless, but I’m pretty okay with it. You had to take whatever reference you could get in those days, and I wonder how many collectors in Germany at the time would have been familiar with the original anyway. The name Agathaumas had already fallen into disuse and John presents it as Triceratops, yet this creation looks less like Triceratops than the original Agathaumas did. Its nose horn has moved further back up the skull, its frill looks even more like a frilled lizard’s and less like a ceratopsian’s, and the boisterous grin of the Knight version has become more of a knowing smile. Both the Knight version and this one (and the Joseph Smit one, too) have hippo feet. It retains all those interesting lizardy scutes and osteoderms Knight bestowed upon it.

I wanted to bring this Megatherium to your attention because it’s got an interesting face. When reconstructed by Knight, Megatherium got an almost polar-bear like face, Robert Bruce Horsfall makes it more like a moose and Hawkins’ Crystal Palace one has more of that tapir trunk look going on. This seems to be a combination of all of them, with some black rhino thrown in, too. Its body, meanwhile, is mostly ape-like, with those long sinewy arms. It might have been based off some other artist I don’t know about, you can never be sure. I like how it’s hanging from the tree like it’s trying to climb it, without realizing it is much too heavy. Maybe John wanted to make it more sloth-like?

What’s up with Deinotherium? Its ears are absolutely tiny. How’s a fast-running pachyderm to loose any heat on the savannah with those Shrek ears? Louis Figuier also had a Deinotherium, but it had big floppy ears. John hasn’t really done much to differentiate its body from that of an elephant – Deinotherium was taller and skinnier. Its head is quite goofy and its eyes look a bit bleary. This looks like an altogether more relaxed animal than the belligerent characterization it got in Walking With Beasts.

John’s work is at its most fun when it’s action packed and dynamic. Here we have some Flugsaurier, locked in mid-air combat. Pretty awesome. Kicking and biting. These pterosarus look bat-like, and the text underlines this. The wings, interestingly, have the suggestion of having bat fingers going through them without actually seeming to have bat fingers go through them. Instead, they have fingered wings like so many old-school Archaeopteryx depictions. The grey animals pop against the spectacular orange sunset. F. John did good here.

More dinosaurs, more action, and more Knight knockoffs! I love this one. It’s, of course, a version of Knight’s infamous Leaping Laelaps, but twisted to such cartoony proportions that it’s hard to be mad. While Knight gave his Laelaps perfectly cromulent tyrannosaur heads, these have heads that I can only describe as muppet alligators. Those rounded, elongated snouts are pretty funny, and I think that was partially the intent. Interestingly, John retained the exact pose of the leaping one, while the one on the bottom is posed completely different. It really does look like a crocodile with longer limbs. It’s a cool, dynamic scene. The original is often used as an example that not all pre-renaissance dinosaur art was stodgy swamp lizards, and this one if anything conveys even more motion and drama. It’s slightly let down by the colour scheme, grey animals on a grey background, compared to the original’s blue on green. Does the defending one have a wound on its arm?

Speaking of stodgy swamp lizards: here’s one of the more baffling cards in the series. We have a none-more-old-school depiction of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, the first known dinosaurs, locked in battle. Never mind the 40 million years between them. The composition and the colours seem to be based on an old Joseph Kuwasseg painting from the 1850s, depicting the same animals. Meanwhile, the depiction of the animals themselves are pure Crystal Palace. A couple variations on the Kuwasseg version exist, including by Louis Figuier and Éduard Riou, all of which influenced this F. John version. To put things in perspective: all these depictions were nearly half a century old already by the time F. John illustrated this. Science had moved on considerably in the meantime, to put it lightly. Images like this based on Waterhouse Hawkins appeared on other collectable cards of the time, too, so this wasn’t really out of the ordinary.

Oddly, there are much more up-to-date theropods (as seen above) and iguanodonts (below) found in this series, by the same artist. Apparently, these very antiquated dinosaurs can exist side by side in the same set with their updated brethren. F. John took their influences from all over the place, but was probably not extremely well versed in contemporaneous science. The influence of Kuwasseg’s landscapes does mean this is one of the lushest dinosaur illustrations in the series.

Have you heard of Brontornis? I hadn’t. It’s a big, bulky flightless bird of unknown classification from Miocene South America, a neighbour of the terror birds but probably not a phorusrhacid itself. F. John turns it into a round birb with thin feet, a blue head and funny little wings. It’s doing battle with a vicious, aquatic, predatory… Hadrosaurus? What? Once again, this is completely all over the place, I’m not even going to attempt to unpack all of this. But it’s a fun and very unusual illustration.

Here’s a vintage Mosasaurus, at its most serpentine and monstrous. I’ve run into sea-serpent mosasaurs before when I discussed Joseph Smit, who produced his around the same time. It’s very much something you’d expect on an old map saying “here be dragons”. Those teeth are comically big. I can’t read its face, it doesn’t seem to have any eyes. It’s all mouth. Incidentally, F. John does a pretty good job on those waves.

After giving Brontornis a good seeing-to, Hadrosaurus also gets a full card to itself. It looks little like it did on the Brontornis card, where it was thin and stretchy and had a long neck. Here, we see a much more bulky and ponderous monster, a chimaera that seems to be put together from all sorts of different pars. Its head is pretty recognizable as a hadrosaur, points there. Then, it has this extremely bottom-heavy body, a crocodile’s tail and the legs of a frog. Somehow, both John and Harder gave their dinosaurs this extreme reptilian sprawl. I don’t know where science stood on dinosaur limbs at this time. There were probably rivaling views, with John and Harder occupying one extreme. I have a hard time imagining how an animal like this would move.

In a set of oddities, we have here possibly our biggest oddity yet. This Hylaeosaurus has very little in common with any depiction of any dinosaur that I am familiar with. It doesn’t even resemble the famously speculative Crystal Palace Hylaeosaurus very much. It again seems to be put together from disparate parts of different animals, but even then only vaguely so. It has a slightly turtle-like head, but not much so. Its tail is that of an Australian gidgee skink, but not much so. Its body is squat, its limbs stubby, its skin is loose and its armour looks like no armour I’ve seen in nature, overlapping armadillo lizard scales that seem to work more like the movable spikes of a hedgehog. The more I look at F. John’s work, the more unique and imaginative it becomes. But it is far removed from any scientific interpretation of Hylaeosaurus.

I’m beginning to notice that F. John keeps posing their dinosaurs on these samey, generic rocky outcrops by the sea. Possibly they didn’t know what to do with mesozoic plants… but who does? Compared to some of the oddball creatures we’ve seen so far, we’re on slightly firmer ground again. It is Stegosaurus in its eight-spiked incarnation, with its back plates arranged single-file. This is pretty much in keeping with the science of the time. This might be based on Marsh’ original skeletal, or on a similar piece by Joseph Smit. I don’t see much Knight influence in here. I’ve definitely seen other versions of Stegosaurus with additional armour like this. Its forelimbs are splayed like a lizard’s once more, but its much longer back leg is straight and rests on a lower level rock. It’s the only way this animal doesn’t become lopsided.

Another instance of John taking inspiration from ancient sources: this one is based on a 1863 work by Édouard Riou, and an oft-repeated palaeoart meme even before Knight ever appeared on the scene. Figuier also has a version. How many tongues does that plesiosaur have? At least the ichthyosaur doesn’t have a visible sclerotic ring. Background volcano, take a shot! Riou’s version didn’t have that, that’s a new addition. John’s illustrations do seem to take place in Cartoon Dino Land. A barren, rocky, volcanic landscape with red or darkened skies, like The Land Before Time.

I told you there’d be more up-to-date iguanodonts. Well, I was only half-lying. Would you recognize this as an Iguanodon if I hadn’t told you? F. John has once again gone full giant, crawling lizard with this one. It is based on the Bernissardt Iguanodon but miles away from the upright creature in kangaroo stance proposed by Dollo and Marsh. It’s sat stretched out over its rock, its short limbs splayed out. Again, it’s hard to imagine this giant animal walking. Does John imagine it as a quadruped or a biped? I love the colours, though. It seems to have amphibian skin, and its intricate pattern is well realized. I love an orange sky.

Applying the sprawling lizard look to a sauropod produces the strangest effect of all. F. John does it here, and both Harder and Vatagin did later. It’s a mistake to think researchers all used to think sauropods had splayed reptile limbs before new data proved them wrong. In fact, all skeletal diagrams from Marsh onward, all reconstructions by Knight, and all of the widespread mounted skeletons and casts always had straight limbs. I have no idea where this particular trope came from.

Laying that aside, we’ve another nice, goofy illustration. The low-slung build of the sauropod was fairly typical of the time; we see similar in Joseph Smit. It has a friendly, innocent eye and its skin is, once again, quite elaborate. That tail is very lizard-like. It’s funny that this Brontosaurus apparently climbed a mountain while its brethren in the distance are having a splash in the swamp.

Let’s finish this lengthy post with a dinosaur from Germany. Compsognathus here is reconstructed in the kangaroo pose, complete with overlong feet (its specific name does mean “long foot”). Again, its face is pretty bizarre, with that eye quite far to the front. Other than that, what catches my attention is that it’s apparently laying an egg? That’s weird and original. There doesn’t seem to be a nest, though. I’m afraid it might roll downhill this way. The text in this particular image is too low-res to read, but it seems to say that Compsognathus hopped around like a kangaroo. Would that F. John had illustrated that!

Let’s be honest. If I have to describe F. John, I’d call them the first great hack dinosaur artist. Copying other palaeoartists and slightly tweaking them into ones own style is certainly not something F. John invented, but I can’t think of anyone who did it on the same scale before; there are thirty cards in this series and thirty more in the next. But isn’t that just the story of palaeoart? So many books have we discussed on these pages with less-than-original palaeoart, endless variations on themes, endless appearances of dinosaurs designed by Knight, Burian, Sibbick and Spielberg. That doesn’t make it less valuable or less fun, and F. John’s work is plenty, plenty fun. John didn’t have the most regard for the scientific side of natural history, but they had a lot of fun making these creatures weird and funny and monstrous. Of course. my next post will be focused on a selection from the second series, and if you think F. John’s work was slightly whimsical and cartoony now, well, it’s only getting more so!

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  • Reply
    Lars Dietz
    November 28, 2023 at 6:20 pm

    The text of the Megatherium image says it’s based on Hutchinson and Smit.
    I remember the Brontornis image was once discussed in the comments in TetZoo. It’s clearly based on an earlier one by A.L. Clément, originally published in “La Nature”:
    It must have seemed less absurd at the time, as Florentino Ameghino assigned much too old ages to the Patagonian sediments, thus concluding that all kinds of advanced mammals and birds were already around in the Cretaceous in that region.
    The sprawling dinosaurs in German media were presumably due to Gustav Tornier, herpetologist at the Berlin museum. He thought that the American paleontologists had gotten dinosaurs wrong, and they should be reconstructed with sprawling limbs like other reptiles. I don’t think many paleontologists took this seriously, but it was widely reported in the German popular press at the time.

  • Reply
    February 16, 2024 at 9:27 am

    That Hylaeosaurus looks oddly like a domestic sheep. It’s easy to interpret its back armour as matted wool and those horns on the side of its face as ears. There are even “fat-tailed” breeds of sheep with tails not dissimilar to this one.

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