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A renaissance is occurring in the way we render extinct species

Mark Witton

Artistic depictions of extinct species, like this Kulindadromeus, increasingly reflect scientific speculation.

Paleontological art, or paleoart, is experiencing a veritable renaissance. Before the pandemic brought public events to a halt, the European mainland was set to witness no fewer than three exhibitions centered on this genre within the span of a year (1–3).

Esther van Gelder, guest curator of the Dinomakers exhibition at the Teylers Museum, attributes the mounting interest in paleoart to an increase in cross-disciplinary fertilization. “Firstly, we see a growing interest in general in hybrid genres that combine science (especially nature) and art,” she says. “But the process of emancipation of paleoart has been going on for some time now, and the generation that got interested in paleontology through dramatic new images of dinosaurs in the eighties and early nineties is now starting to write books, make art, and curate exhibitions themselves.”

Previously, reconstructions were rendered conservatively, depicting extinct creatures exclusively in postures and contexts that had been confirmed scientifically. But such renderings often ended up emphasizing the exceptionality of past life. By contrast, recent paleoart has increasingly come to underline the similarities between extinct and existing flora and fauna. What sets this new practice apart is its embrace of the “known unknowns” and its ability to recognize that more than one possibility may be worthy of consideration. The resulting art is simultaneously more fantastic and more scientifically probable than anything we have seen before.

Part of this transformation can be traced to a book published in 2012 called All Yesterdays (4). In it, the book’s authors toy with the uncertainty inherent in paleontological reconstruction, emphasize how much knowledge could be gained by looking at contemporary nature, and even satirize some reconstruction practices. Paleontologist and paleoartist Mark Witton describes the book as “a game-changer for the current generation of paleoartists. It both captured attitudes circulating about paleoart in the late 2000s and, [in] arguing for greater originality and bolder speculation in paleoartworks, set a clear course that inspired a lot of debate and discussion.”

Whereas previous generations attempted to eliminate overt speculation about long-dead species, Witton, like many other contemporary practitioners, embraces it: “There are very few aspects of extinct animal anatomy that we can’t say something intelligent about. A big new paper can spark a wave of new artwork and dissection among the paleoart community, and feedback and development of different interpretations can be rapid.”

That newfound dynamism seems to have helped paleoart become more popular as an artistic genre. “Paleoart was not considered ‘proper’ art, unlike classic botanical and zoological painting,” van Gelder explains. “But when Zoë Lescaze published her book Paleoart in 2017, with magnificent, high-quality reproductions, it became possible to convince my colleagues that we were dealing with a genre that possessed genuine artistic merit” (5).

Paleontologists use art not only to popularize their science but also to gain insights into their work that can be difficult to achieve using other means. “I’m definitely inspired by depictions of extinct animals that include ‘real’ behavior, in other words, not just roaring and eating, but grooming, display, and other natural things all animals get up to,” notes University of Oxford paleontologist Elsa Panciroli. “It makes me wonder if those behaviors are likely—or even possible—and how I might scientifically approach finding out.”

The genre still has some hurdles to tackle, including the fact that many museums lack budgets for commissioning paleoart. This has led to a constant recycling of older images, reinforcing the genre as both scientifically and artistically dated. But change is under way. “There’s so much more discussion and interaction than there used to be. None of us really work in isolation anymore,” says Witton. “Social media and the increase in online publishing have allowed people interested in paleoart—the artists themselves, their followers, paleontologists—to connect in ways we were unable to a decade or so ago.”

References and Notes
1. Saurier – Die Erfindung der Urzeit [Saurians – The Invention of Prehistoric Times], Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha, Gotha, Germany, 6 February 2021 to 22 August 2021.
2. Paläo-Art. Von Jugenstil bis in die Moderne [Paleo-Art. From Art Nouveau to Modernism], Paläontologisches Museum München, München, Germany, 5 September 2019 to 30 June 2020.
3. Dinomakers, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands, 31 January 2020 to 23 August 2020.
4. J. Conway, C. M. Kosemen, D. Naish, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals (Irregular Books, 2012).
5. Z. Lescaze, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past (Taschen, 2017).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of the History and Social Aspects of Science, Faculty of Science, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1081 HV Amsterdam, Netherlands.