If you ever visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. sometime before 2015 and visited their fossil hall, you will have come face to face with a series of six large murals by palaeoartist Jay Matternes, showing different stages in the evolution of mammals. For nearly five decades, these were part of various exhibits until they were dismantled in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit the museum. But, luckily for me, Smithsonian Books has now published Visions of Lost Worlds, a beautifully produced love letter to Matternes’s palaeoart. Written by the museum’s Curator of Dinosauria Matthew T. Carano and director Kirk R. Johnson, in close collaboration with Matternes himself, this large-format art book offers an unparalleled look at these murals and the artistic process of making them.
The core of this book consists of six chapters, one for each of the six mammal murals, that take a trip back in time from the late Pleistocene, 14,000 years ago, all the way to the early Eocene, some 50 million years ago. This was not the order in which these murals were produced, but this reverse chronology does make sense since the closing chapter covers three dinosaur dioramas that were also in the Smithsonian. For these, Matternes provided both the painted backdrops and collaborated with sculptor Norman Neal Deaton on three-dimensional models. Starting the book with these would have been somewhat incongruous, as they are not as major a part of his work.
Each of the murals shows a typical day in the life of mammalian communities of the distant past, based on the fossil material uncovered from notable sites in the United States. In each chapter, an introductory section describes the climate, flora, and fauna of each period, as well as the actual fossil evidence that has allowed palaeontologists to reconstruct the mammalian communities existing back then. A further section provides more information about the research and practical work by Matternes that went into creating each mural. Archival photographs accompany these sections, showing historic dig sites, mounted fossils, and the murals in situ at the museum at various dates in the past.
“printing large rectangular artworks in book format is always problematic […] Luckily, the production team has carefully placed the images such that two-third appears on the left-hand side and one-third on the right-hand side, rather than going straight down the middle.”
But words can only tell you so much. After these introductions, you get a lush two-page spread of the murals themselves. The book is printed in an oversized square format, measuring 27 × 27 cm. The murals were enormous, roughly 3.6-3.7 m high and 5.5-7.5 m wide (12 ft by 18-24 ft). Unless you resort to binding fold-out pages into a book, printing large rectangular artworks in book format is always problematic as part of the image disappears into the gutter where the pages form the spine. Luckily, the production team has carefully placed the images such that two-third appears on the left-hand side and one-third on the right-hand side, rather than going straight down the middle. This means the focus of the action in the images remains clearly visible. Though you always lose some details, for most images this is a satisfactory solution. A nice touch is that the next spread shows the image again, greyed out and with numbered outlines of all the species, with a list of species names to the right. I get the feeling that these visual keys are a lost art form in themselves that you do not see much anymore these days.
However, what follows next is what really makes this book stand out. A large part of each chapter shows blown-up sections of the mural, revealing details that are easily missed. This highlights, for example, Matternes’s love of painting animal faces and feet. Furthermore, Matternes has contributed a huge number of sketches and studies from his archives, showing the painstaking work that went into each animal shown on the murals.
“On many of the sketches you will find the original handwritten notes, thoughts, and corrections that Matternes jotted down as he was working”
On many of the sketches you will find the original handwritten notes, thoughts, and corrections that Matternes jotted down as he was working. What is especially sweet is that the size of their reproduction here allows you to read almost all of them (though you may have to squint in a few cases). There are also facsimiles of some letters that he exchanged with scientists. You have to remember that when he produced these murals in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s – other than the non-existence of the internet – there was not much reference material to go on. The richness of palaeoart that exists now was not at Matternes’s fingertips. Other than drawing on his previous experience as a wildlife artist, he visited mounted skeletons in US museums and sought the council of palaeontologists and palaeobotanists about details on his murals. Mark Witton dedicated a chapter The Palaeoartist’s Handbook to the importance of researching your subject, and Matternes is a shining example of a very conscientious and thorough artist.
The murals are, of course, a product of their time. It is charming to see, for example, how initial sketches of the bizarre shovel-jawed gomphothere elephants shows them with rounded trunks with an added note that these should actually be flat. The final mural indeed depicts them as such, in line with scientific thinking of the time. Current opinion has shifted back to more rounded trunks, as shown in the original sketches. Similarly, some of the sketches for the dinosaur dioramas show hadrosaur snouts without the rarely preserved horny beaks that extend beyond the skull (see Witton’s The Palaeoartist’s Handbook for more about the challenges of soft-tissue reconstruction).
The three dinosaur dioramas are bundled into one chapter, and it seems fewer archival photos were available to discuss these so this section is quite a bit shorter. Some of the sketches for a planned but cancelled fourth diorama, showing an underwater scene, are fascinating.
“It is heartwarming to see a museum go to these lengths to celebrate work they commissioned in the past.”
As mentioned at the start, the murals were removed a few years ago. Thank goodness they were not destroyed but housed in the museum’s permanent collection, although these are not open to the public. One of them is on loan to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science where it can be viewed. But what became of Matternes? This book does not discuss his further work and achievements. The biographical sketch on his website is similarly very brief, so maybe this is an area ripe for a biographer [edit: stay tuned for an exciting update on this in the not too distant future].
I absolutely loved this book and if you are a fan of (historical) palaeoart this book is a must. It is heartwarming to see a museum go to these lengths to celebrate work they commissioned in the past. To my knowledge, Matternes’s paintings have not been covered elsewhere before (Lescaze’s Paleoart did not include it), and Carrano & Johnson have delivered a top-notch production. Their call to have him recognized next to the greats such as Charles R. Knight, Burian, and Zallinger seems entirely deserved.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Visions of Lost Worlds hardback or ebook
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: