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Painting the Land Before Time: A Victorian Vision of Dinosaur Life

Detail of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's "Jurassic Life of Europe" (1877), oil canvas (all images courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)
Detail of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s “Jurassic Life of Europe” (1877), oil canvas (all images courtesy Princeton University Art Museum)

From 1805 to as recently as 2000, Princeton University exhibited one of the great college natural history collections, rivaling those of peers Harvard and Yale. As institutions fought to claim the latest and greatest dinosaur fossils in the Bone Wars of the late 19th century, Princeton undergraduate expeditions periodically ventured out to the American West in search of plant and mineralogical specimens to populate the university’s museum, making nine excavation trips in total and amassing tens of thousands of samples for its Vertebrate Paleontology collection. First housed in the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall and later in the newly constructed Guyot Hall, Princeton’s Natural History Museum tragically closed its doors in 2000 and was converted into offices and classrooms. However, unlike the collection of Brown University’s former Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology — the majority of which was driven into a dump — most of the specimens in Princeton’s former natural history museum have been retained and stored by the university.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Early Jurassic Marine Reptiles, 1876. Oil Canvas. (Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum.)
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, ‘Early Jurassic Marine Reptiles’ (1876)

In addition to scientific specimens, the Princeton Natural History Museum collected artwork to contextualize its holdings and illustrate the flora and fauna of the ancient world. Displayed high above the viewer and wrapping around the central atrium of the museum, hung seventeen murals by Victorian artist and naturalist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Commissioned in 1876 by university president James McCosh, the paintings presented prehistoric life from various global regions and geological eras, providing museumgoers with a narrated timeline of the progression of life from the dawn of time.

Of Hawkins’s 17 commissioned paintings, 15 survive and remain at Princeton University and four feature his beloved dinosaurs. According to the Princeton Art Museum’s website, the works “constitute the earliest known representations of dinosaurs and prehistoric life as they were understood at the time.” Hawkins used fossil findings and scientific evidence to literally flesh out his representations of animals, with the intention of educating the public about past life. Earlier in his career, in 1852, he sculpted a menagerie of dinosaurs — the first life-size reconstructions of their type — for the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London. In celebration of the feat, Hawkins and 21 other scientists famously dined on a seven-course meal in the belly of “an Iguanodon” as they rang in the new year of 1854. Sir Richard Owen, the paleontologist who coined the term “Dinosauria,” sat at the head of the table.

The famous banquet in the mould of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon, New Year's Eve, 1853. As depicted in the Illustrated London News and scanned from The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs (via Wikipedia)
The famous banquet in the mould of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon, New Year’s Eve, 1853. As depicted in the ‘Illustrated London News’ and scanned from ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs’ (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Through his aesthetic decisions, Hawkins ascribed behaviors to dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals that neither he nor the scientists of his time had the capacity or data to deduce. The works demonstrate how, as prehistoric life was first unearthed, Hawkins pieced together fact and fantasy to produce representations of dinosaurs that we still recognize today. They set the paradigm for the successive portrayal of dinosaurs by later paleoartists like Charles Knight.

Despite beginning his career as an illustrator for Charles Darwin, Hawkins openly mocked Darwin’s views on evolution and natural selection. In the introduction to his book A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame, published in 1860, Hawkins points to the “oneness of plan upon all animals are constructed,” and credits the “omniscient wisdom” of the “Almighty Architect.” The medium of painting enabled Hawkins to advance his creationist and anti-Darwinian views. In the “Cretaceous Life of New Jersey,” Hawkins crowds the landscape with different species — at least four different ones, including the Dryptosaurus, Hadrosaurus, Mosasaurus, and Elasmosaurus — theatrically organizing them within the universe of the rectangular painting. Influenced by the staunch anti-evolution beliefs of Sir Owen, his scientific advisor, Hawkins modeled the physiology of dinosaurs on that of mammals, positioning them on all four legs to emphasize that the creatures, akin to today’s mammals, were “the highest form of life on earth at the time … suited to their time and place.” Hawkins’s 1853 Crystal Palace “Iguanodon” is particularly rotund and mammal-like with its soft belly and short limbs, demonstrating Owen’s ideological pull on Hawkins’s artistry.

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Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, “Cretaceous Life of New Jersey” (1877)

By demonstrating the interaction between species and their contemporary environments, Hawkins’s paintings served to educate university students about geological and biological history and animate ancient fossil specimens. The visceral nature of the works, says Robert McCracken Peck, Curator of Art and Artifacts and Senior Fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, “gave them enormous power to convince [contemporaries] of the reality of deep time,” and preceded the proliferation of dinosaur imagery in today’s pop culture.

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Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, “Jurassic Life of Europe” (1877)
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Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, “Triassic Life of Germany” (1877)

Cretaceous Life of New Jersey” is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum.The remaining Hawkins paintings are in storage, but can be viewed by special request.

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