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The Making of the Age of Reptiles Mural


Rudolph F. Zallinger

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In early January 1942, during my last year at the Yale School of the Fine Arts, I had the good fortune to be offered some illustration work. (This offer was especially providential, since I was newly married to classmate Jean Day and we were typically strapped for funds.) The bearer of my good fortune was Dr. Albert E. Parr, then director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Parr had been unhappy with the appearance of the Great Hall of the museum, which he thought resembled a dismal barren cavern devoid of color, and he therefore asked Lewis E. York, one of my professors at art school, if he would recommend an artist who could paint it. Their discussion evidently went something like this:

PARR: There is this large wall space, which would be suitable for applying some sort of decoration, probably a series of portrayals of beasts represented by skeletons in the hall -- or some such thing. Lewis, do you know anyone who could undertake such a work?
YORK: Sure. And, you already know him. It's Rudy. He has been doing all those seaweed drawings for you.
Some time after that conversation, I presented a batch of my latest works to the curators of fhe Peabody Museum to demonstrate my ability to comprehend and synthesize data and create convincing images. Naturally, the sample works involved subject matter other than ancient lizards and extinct flora. The curriculum at the Yale School of the Fine Arts did not include a course in the painting of dinosaurs. Those who reviewed the evidence were apparently satisfied that the project could move forward, wherever it led. As of March 1, 1942, I was appointed to the staff of the Peabody Museum to devote myself exclusively to the wall-painting project.

In natural history museums, the traditional convention for painted restorations of ancient animals made use of a single animal or a group of one or perhaps a few species, which strictly observed a geological time frame and location. Dr. Parr ond others talked about painting a series of pictures showing dinosaurs with other animal and plant life that would cover the east wall of the Great Hall and would help the public envision as living animals the beasts that were represented by skeletons in the hall.

Early Sketch of the Mural

I recall pondering over that long brick wall and wondering how it could be divided into panels -- separate framed panels. That format violated one of the basic tenets of mural design in that architecturally it seemed incongruous. Breaking up that great expanse in this large public space measuring 110 feet in length, 55 feet in width, and 26 feet in height (minus the 10 feet allocated to exhibit cases) clearly posed a problem. However, protesting against convention was not enough. The appropriateness of an alternative had to be proved or disproved. Out of my discussions with my new collaborators, especially with Dr. G. Edward Lewis, who was the curator of vertebrate paleontology, I ultimately proposed a different concept, that of using the whole available wall -- 110 feet by 16 feet of it -- for a "panorama of time," effecting a symbolic reference to the evolutionary history of the earth's life up to the emergence of dinosaurs and through their domination of the Mesozoic era. After some deliberation, this format was adopted, and my collaborators -- mainly Dr. Lewis and Dr. George R. Wieland -- proceeded to submit me to an unparalleled crash course in the various disciplines involved, principally vertebrate paleontology and paleobotany.

The process of creating the mural involved, first, the development of a working drawing or cartoon, in which the particulars of the elements and other design issues were gradually formulated, carrying into execution the enormous amount of data that I was beginning to sort out in my mind. This drawing consisted of a 10-foot-long sheet of heavyweight, 100 percent rag paper whose ends were attached to cardboard tubes 4 inches in diameter. In operation, it resembled a Chinese scroll. The device was portable, and by rolling or unrolling, one gained access to individual sections of the drawing as needed.

Many arrangements were tried and revised and revamped as the compositional format was being developed. Large foreground trees served as symbolic markers of boundaries between the geologic periods. The painting, which represents an evolutionary time span of more than 300 million years, thus gives some suggestion of epochs separated in time. Because the main entrance to the hall is at the south end -- near the right side of the mural -- and because of the time sequence in which the Peabody's fossils are arranged, the chronology of the subject matter moves from right to left rather than in the customary direction.

Adherence to scientific correctness in all respects was the goal of every participant, particularly as we became increasingly aware of the opportunity to create a definitive work. I respected the authority of my collaborators with regard to factual data and information; they avoided comments or criticism on aesthetic, artistic matters.

My experience in comparative anatomy was extremely limited at the beginning of the project. However, during my five-year arts course at Yale, the study of human forms was taught in a manner that promoted a deeply analytical approach to constructive anatomy. Consequently, I crossed the bridge to the structure of amphibians, reptiles, and other life forms with a well-buttressed hope of positive results. For example, Dr. Richard Swann Lull, at one time during his long, distinguished career as a vertebrate paleontologist, had prepared a flayed, superficial muscular rendering of a typical biped and one of the duckbills of the Cretaceous. Together we managed to produce similar renderings for quadrupeds. This stage of the work took about six months, resulting finally in a fairly determinate image in pencil, measuring 12 inches in height and 82 inches in width at the scale of 3/4 inch to the foot.

On the Scaffolding This pencil cartoon was a preamble to the next step, namely the preparation of a gesso panel of the some size for the purpose of creating a full-color, fully realized painting as a model for the east wall. This panel would be executed in egg tempera, following the imperatives of the fifteenth-century painter and chronicler Cennino Cennini for the proper preparation of a fresco secco. There is a close relationship between these techniques, egg tempera functioning naturally on a smaller scale and the casein-glue-tempered fresco secco better suited to larger sizes. I completed the egg-tempera panel in October 1943. Several months earlier, the wall had been plastered in preparation for the painting. Briefly, sheets of steel lath were riveted to the brick wall, a grout coat of plaster about an inch thick was applied, and over this a filler coat a bit less thick was spread. The final surface coat consisted of a slaked-lime and river-sand mix applied smoothly as a skim coat of an average 1/4-inch thickness. Lime plaster is more stable; it does not contract and expand to the extent that gypsum plasters do.

After the wall had been allowed to cure, it was measured. The curing had been timed to coincide with the completion of the full-color panel. I began my work on the actual wall in October 1943. Using black-and-white photographs mounted on hardboard ond gridded into 1 and 1/2 inch squares as a guide for scale, I then drew a grid on the wall, dividing it into 2-foot squares. In other words, a 1 and 1/2 inch square on the photograph equaled a 2-foot square on the wall. The scaffolding consisted of a planked platform 6 feet wide at the top of the wall cases; this ran the full 110 feet of the east wall. A movable wooden carriage with rather primitive variable height capacities provided essential access.

This movable rig was pushed over to the far right end of the hall, and at the end of October 1943 I mounted to the top platform to start a line-drawing version of the whole composition. Vividly etched in my memory is my trepidation as I scanned that endless wall while holding a slender stick of charcoal in my hand, about to begin my work with a tool seemingly so inadequate to the task. However, I regained composure and began what turned out to be a 3 and 1/2 year project. My working schedule consisted of teaching two days a week at the Yale School of the Fine Arts, with the rest of the time devoted to work on the mural. The diagraming and line drawing went along rather smoothly. They enabled me to adjust to the scale and size -- arm swings compared to finger movements, the confronting of an area of 1,760 square feet! I completed this linear phase about five months later.

Painting the Edaphosaurus Next was the development of a tone-modulated monochrome underpainting, rendered with a mix of black and burnt umber pigments tempered by a 5 percent solution of casein glue (chemically similar to the cheese-and-lime glue of Renaissance times). All the forms set down at that stage were deliberately overmodeled so that traces would later show through the overpainted layering of colors. These first paint films were restricted to a medium tonality for the light sides of forms and a matrix coating for the darker parts. The later phases, most time-consuming because of their complexities, involved the elaboration of modulations of tones, lines, and shapes in order to achieve the intended illusions -- the final three-dimensional appearance of the work.

This technique, called fresco secco (from the Italian fresco, plaster, and secco, dry) is not often practiced today for many reasons, among them the difficulty of painting at the site in the current scheme of things. Moreover, there are very few painters who have acquired the competence to execute the process and equally few painters in egg tempera able to carry out the technical preparation for fresco secco. All this is most regrettable, because the attributes of this centuries-old form of mural painting -- with its resulting delineating character, its capacities to feature the pure essences of pigment individualities -- are all desirable qualities. Furthermore, this technique provides durability second only to buon fresco, in which pigments are infused into wet plaster, and was most notably practiced by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. The secco painting allows for intricacies of detail not possible in the other technique -- a deciding factor in its selection.

Finished... During the 3 and 1/2 years I painted on the wall, the Great Hall was always open. Students, colleagues, and the general public thus had a rare opportunity to witness the gradual development of a large painting, created by means of a technique uncommon in the twentieth century. I completed the painting on June 6, 1947. My mentor for technical information and aesthetic concerns was my long-time professor, faculty colleague, and friend Lewis Edwin York, chairman of the department of painting at the Yale School of the Fine Arts (1937-1950). His mentor in these matters was Daniel Varney Thompson, who was the primary translator of Cennino Cennini's fifteenth-century tome about "the practice of the art." Thompson had been in England while the mural was being developed. I will forever recall the day, when the painting was nearing completion, that York brought this living legend, Thompson, into the Great Hall and I was privileged to meet and talk to the man whom I had revered for so long. Professor York later told me that Thompson had stated, "That wall is the most important one since the fifteenth century" -- debatable, of course, but, considering the source, most gratifying.

Text and imagery adapted from: "A Guide to the Age of Reptiles (2nd Edition)," by John H. Ostrom, Leo J. Hickey, and Theodore Delevoryas, (C) 1987 Peabody Museum of Natural History; and "The Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale: The Age of Reptiles," by Vincent Scully, Rudolph F. Zallinger, Leo J. Hickey, and John H. Ostrom, (C) 1990 Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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