Art & Design at the Natural History Museum

“Drawing is putting a line (a)round an idea.” ~ Henri Matisse

I would venture to guess that most people don’t think about art when they’re wandering amongst dioramas, old bones and models of blue whales. It’s a natural history museum, after all, not an art museum… sniff.

And let’s face it, old bones are exceptionally cool and super fun to look at.

Forelimb of Triceratops, or a close relative...

Forelimb of Triceratops, or a close relative…

But you would be (pleasantly) surprised to find some fine examples of illustration in the halls. One of my favorite illustrators, bar none, is Charles R. Knight. He’s best known for his dinosaur paintings, but I adore his drawings, too.

Phorusrhacos, by Charles R. Knight. Phrousrhacos was a 10-foot tall carnivorous bird. The drawing, at AMNH, is amazing; the reproduction, unfortunately, loses a tiny bit of the magic.

Phorusrhacos, by Charles R. Knight. Phrousrhacos was a 10-foot tall carnivorous bird. The drawing, at AMNH, is amazing; the reproduction, unfortunately, loses a tiny bit of the magic.

I bought a great book about Charles R. Knight, Charles R. Knight: The Artist who Saw Through Time. If you want some biographical information about Knight and even more examples of his amazing work, check out the book.

A less well known, but no less accomplished, illustrator whose work is prominent on the fourth floor of the AMNH is Jay Matternes. Here a couple of examples (details) of his extraordinary draftsmanship from the hall of primitive mammals:

An detail from one of Jay Matternes's drawings from the hall of primitive mammals. I think the security folk were concerned at my intense interest in getting very close to the glass...

An detail from one of Jay Matternes’s drawings from the hall of primitive mammals. I think the security folk were concerned at my intense interest in getting very close to the glass…


Another detail from a Jay Matternes drawing. Look at how he "draws through" the scapula. Amazing.

Another detail from a Jay Matternes drawing. Look at how he “draws through” the scapula. Amazing.

And finally, as an example of how museum exhibits are very much products of their times (in a good way), here are a couple of (fuzzy — sorry about that!) images from the Hall of North American Forests.

1950s? 60s? I love this illustration.

1950s? 60s? I love this illustration.


I adore the way the cow is handled from a design perspective. It's beautiful without being too literal.

I adore the way the cow is handled from a design perspective. It’s beautiful without being too literal.


And the mouse...

And the mouse…

I don’t envy the curators of this hall. It’s clearly dated — although that seems to be more in the area of design than the actual information presented — but much of the work is so beautiful that I can’t help but think that some of this hall’s charm would be lost in any attempt to modernize the exhibit.

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