Palaeoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past

Good08_4004_01Francis Gooding at the LRB:

Such images reveal a profound unease about the very idea of extinct, prehistoric creatures. In a Christian society, the precise place these newly discovered animals held in God’s creation was a source of debate and consternation. Were they antediluvian beings, who had been destroyed in the Flood? Did that mean they’d been wicked – undeserving of the salvation afforded other animals? Did they date from a time earlier still, a ‘pre-Adamic’ moment of creation? Or had they never lived at all, their bones having been placed in rocks by the Creator as a test of faith? In 1830, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology had argued that the Earth was much older than the six thousand or so years suggested by scripture, and in 1859 Darwin’s On the Origin of Speciespromoted a new theory that scandalously linked all of organic life together through an iron law of competition and extinction. Meanwhile, the factories of the industrial revolution were issuing forth new, smoke-belching, roaring creations. The wild violence of much early palaeoart, with its images of frenzied consumption and environmental disaster, were symptomatic of these alarming uncertainties.

Alongside these visions of universal catastrophe, a more peaceful ancient world also existed. In much early British palaeoart, the dinosaur is dignified lord of creation not hellish dragon. These visions of a sublime prehistory can be seen as a transformation of Romantic landscape painting, and in them dinosaurs appear as the just rulers of a natural kingdom.

more here.