Creating the Mural – Rudolph Zallinger’s masterpiece,”The Age of Reptiles”

Creating the Mural – Rudolph Zallinger’s masterpiece,”The Age of Reptiles”


Hello I’m Armand Morgan, museum instructor
and artist at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
It’s a pleasure for me to be able to talk to you about Rudolph Zallinger and the creation
of the “Age of Reptiles” mural. Rudy was an artist I admired for many years
and eventually got to know while working at the Peabody. This is a photograph of the Peabody’s Great
Hall as it looks today. And here, is a photograph of the Great Hall
taken in the 1930’s before the creation of the mural. You may have noticed that several of the mounted
skeletons have moved since then and that the ceiling once had skylights. In 1941 the director of the museum, Albert
Parr, wanted to add a series of small paintings on the East wall.
These paintings would depict what some of the skeletons below might have looked like
when they were alive. Lewis York, an art professor at the School
of Fine Arts, suggested that one of his most gifted students, a senior named Rudy Zallinger,
would be up to the task. So in 1942, Rudy was hired to create the small
paintings – but soon he proposed a much grander and more architecturally fitting project. Rudy envisioned a giant mural on the entire
wall that would function as a panoramic timeline. This enormous undertaking would be completed
as a fresco secco, or dry fresco, a painting technique used during the 14th and 15th centuries. Here is a preliminary sketch of Rudy’s mural
proposal complete with onlookers to provide a sense of scale.
Rudy and his wife, artist Jean Zallinger and 2 children are illustrated on the far left. It is interesting that the children were strictly
imaginary at the time this was drawn, for it would be another 2 years before Rudy and
Jean started a family. After receiving the director’s approval
to pursue the much larger mural project, Rudy began working with scientific advisors from
Yale and Harvard to create an accurate portrayal of roughly 350 million years of animal and
plant evolution, including the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. After six months of intensive scientific training
and numerous revisions, Rudy completed this nearly 7-foot long preparatory drawing in
pencil. He used tall trees to divide the mural into the various periods of geologic time. Following the way that medieval frescos were
created, Rudy spent nearly a year on this next step, a complete but much smaller painting
of the mural in egg tempera. Egg tempera was the primary medium for painters in 14th century
Italy, before oils were widely used. This stage of the mural process is called
the ‘model’. Egg tempera painting involves mixing pigments with egg yolk and water and
then applying the mixture to a wooden panel. While the egg tempera model was nearing completion,
the east wall of the Great Hall was prepared with several coats of plaster. Using charcoal, Rudy drew a grid on the plaster
wall to help transfer and enlarge the composition of the finished model. Rudy later reported that only when he first
began to draw on the 110-foot long wall with his tiny piece of charcoal did he feel any
trepidation about the whole project. In this photo you can also see the old (and
incorrect) Apatosaurus skull that was eventually replaced with the correct one 38 years later. Here, Rudy is standing on the six-foot wide
scaffolding erected at the bottom of the mural, 16 feet below the ceiling. He is clearly drawing the outline of all of
the plants and animals but he hasn’t added any details yet. After finishing the outline, Rudy applied
a monochrome underpainting using burnt umber and black pigments mixed with a solution of
casein glue, instead of egg yolks, as the binding medium. This photo shows the finished underpainting,
which Rudy completed sometime in the early part of 1944. He deliberately exaggerated the darks and
lights so that when the next layers of color were added, some shading from underneath would
show through. This photo was taken in October of 1946 when
the painting was close to being completed. The top of the mural looks finished, but if
you look carefully at the plants and dinosaurs just behind Rudy you can see the painting
looks rather flat. The underpainting appears to only have a single
layer of color over it. Finally, Rudy would add the darkest shadows,
the brightest highlights and other details, such as hundreds of scales on each dinosaur. Rudy completed the mural in June of 1947.
Two years later, his work on this magnificent project was recognized with a Pulitzer Scholarship
Award. In 1953 this image of the Apatosaurus was
featured on the cover of LIFE magazine when they began a 13 part series on the history
of life called “The World We Live In”. Unknown to many, the Apatosaurus image was
taken from the egg tempera model, not the mural itself, which was too large and technically
difficult to photograph in the 1950’s. The image was also reversed so that the when
the entire painting was reproduced inside the magazine it could be read from left to
right, unlike Rudy’s timeline, which runs from right to left. Although the egg tempera model and the mural
look nearly identical at first glance, there are several changes that Rudy made when he
moved to the much larger painting on the wall. For example, when painting the final mural,
the larger size allowed Rudy to add much more detail to the landscape. Here is a scene from the Jurassic section
of the model, compared to the same scene in the mural. Another difference is this Archaeopteryx – brightly
colored in the egg tempera model but not as brilliant in the mural. A small but interesting detail is that in
the model there is a leaf falling in mid-air from the Apatosaurus mouth that Rudy decided
to leave out of the mural. This is also a clue that the LIFE magazine
cover and all older posters were taken from the egg tempera painting, not the actual mural. Although mammals are known to have existed
since the early Jurassic period, Rudy did not include any in the model, and added only
one to the mural – a Cimolestes just to the right of his signature. Thank you for joining me to hear about Rudy
Zallinger and his masterpiece of art and science, “The Age of Reptiles”. As it has for generations, the mural continues
to inspire and help define our view of the prehistoric world. Now you will be taken back to the main screen
of this program, where you can choose a section of the mural and learn more about each of
the species found there.

14 thoughts on “Creating the Mural – Rudolph Zallinger’s masterpiece,”The Age of Reptiles”

  1. Absolutely Gorgeous! As a kid when i was the ever budding paleontologist… I always wondered in amazment however did these people from back then put flesh and muscle on bone, and breath an environment to these wonderous creatures… This and the sinclaire T-rex vs Triceratops are my most favorite retro paintings of dinosaurs since the correction made to tripod dinosaur stance… Another of my favorites is Iguanodon, but the old tripod stance iguanodon…

  2. I first saw this breathtaking art when I was 5 years old and my Dad brought the Time-LIfe book The World We Live In home. It was the start of my lifelong fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. I also have Zallinger's big children's book of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. I have miniature poster reproductions of this and his other mural, The Age of Mammals. It is one of my ambitions to go in person some day to see the mural at the Peabody Museum. Thank you, Rudy, and R.I.P.

  3. Hermoso. Tenía un libro cuando niño con las pinturas de este mural (Posiblemente el de Time Life en español). A pesar de no ser correctamente exactos en la postura de algunos de los animales retratados, las imágenes aún pueden ser aterradoras y al mismo tiempo evocadoras de un pasado que ningún humano visitará. Tremenda historia de la tierra y en hacerlo mural también es un grito político a una parte de la sociedad profundamente anclada en valores puritanos cristianos (el creacionismo en USA es increíblemente fuerte). ¡¡Fantastic!!

  4. Rudolph Zallinger's incredible art mural was the one single influence that fired up my life-long interest in dinosaurs! I used to own all three volumes of LIFE's "The World We Live In" years after grabbing a copy of the smaller formatted book based on the series, entitled "Prehistoric Animals." In my opinion, Zallinger's work is some of the very best ever done to portray the primordial beginnings of Earth and the giant creatures that once dominated our planet!

  5. Incredible work. As a child, I was familiar with "The Age of Reptiles", but now that I'm older, I deeply admire Zallinger's skill, diligence, and scientific detail imbued in this timeless mural.

  6. some of my happiest memories are going to the peabody museum as a child and again as an adult, we were lucky to live right off of state st so we could ride our bikes there ,this mural always took my breath away and i would spend hours studying every aspect, the museum grew my love for creating art and for history…or is it prehistory? lol thanks for the additional info about it… new haven does have a few things worthwhile still although it has been on the decline for decades

  7. I recall see this painting as a reproduction poster that one of my second grade teachers had hung up right above the two huge blackboards in class. It was right above the alphabet letters. Seems like all the classes had the alphabet displayed above the blackboards. Of course there was also the American flag high up on the walls as well. Wonder if they still display the flag in classes today. I was in school in the very early 1970s. I always was in awe at this masterpiece of art. I often daydreamed about life back then and how a person would be in almost constant mortal danger of being devoured by some giant dinosaur. I had no idea how deadly and lethal the smaller dinosaurs could be. Jurassic Park was decades in the future back then ,which introduced me to the very deadly velociraptor. I liked how at the end of JP Speilberg showed the mighty T REX standing in all its magnificent glory in the exact pose where the skeletal remains of a T REX had been on display only minutes before. That was inspired filmmaking and put a huge smile on my face. Maybe in the near future some filmmaker will do a honorable tribute to the AOR painting in a film. I'm envisioning a scene where someone approaches a cliff and upon reaching the edge is witness to a huge panoramic view of living breathing dinosaurs and reptiles depicting the famous mural exactly.Then have a camera dissolve depicting the mural and then jump back to the scene where all the creatures are alive and in motion. That would be phenomenal! Geeks heads would explode!

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