Art in the Lion’s Den

View Images

Charles R. Knight was a finicky artist. Regardless of whether he was drawing a bison for a now-extinct version of the 10 dollar bill or sculpting an elephant, he refused to work from photographs or films. Everything he needed to interpret organisms could be found through observation, and, situated as he was in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, the New York Zoological Park provided ample inspiration.

Though Knight is best known for his restorations of prehistoric life – his dinosaur murals at Chicago’s Field Museum are arguably the finest ever composed – he could not have reconstructed primeval creatures so wondrously without instruction from the anatomy and attitudes of living animals. (I almost wrote “primeval monsters” in the last line, but since Knight was a cantankerous editorialist who often wrote to newspapers objecting overly cutesy or bloodthirsty depictions of animals, I figure that it is better not to raise the ire of the artist’s ghost.) Big cats were among his favorite inspirations – Knight’s The Tiger and the Peacock is one of his most beautiful paintings, based, at least in part, upon observations of captive felines kept in public pens of iron and concrete. The New York Zoological Park’s first director understood the utility of these animals to artists like Knight. If the administrator had his way, he would have created a special room where artists could have met as many animal muses as they liked.

Richard Milner outlined the plans for the drawing room in his recently-published book Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. In an 1898 article in the New York Herald – published a year before the zoo opened to the public – the institution’s director William Temple Hornaday envisioned a special, glass-roofed room within the lion house where zoo residents could be deposited before artists holding pencils and brushes at the ready. “A miniature railroad track will run from the rest of the buildings here,” Hornaday boasted, “and in a special cage (into which they have been enticed) the kings and queens of the forest will be rolled to pose.”

A short, 1897 blurb about the zoo’s layout in Scientific American offered a few more technical details. “Underneath the row of cages will run a tramway carrying a cage car that can be lifted up through the floor of the cage by turning a crank, so than an animal may be easily driven into it and carted to a special ‘studio cage’ at another end of the building,” the article explained. This was for the benefit of curious artists, though the zoo catered to more sensationalist desires, too. In a proposed prototype of feeding stations seen at crocodylian-populated menageries today, the lion house was to also feature a space “where spectators may stand and watch the feeding of the lions over the heads of the people on the wide floor space below.”

But Hornaday never fulfilled his promises. The special artist’s room and tramway were never actually constructed. That is just as well. After explaining the value of forming relationships with zookeepers, Knight admonished readers of his guidebook Animal Drawing, “Don’t, however, make the mistake of presuming too much upon the kindness of becoming unduly free with your models, particularly the big cats, or you may be minus a hand or arm before you realize that your feline friend is just another fierce and more or less treacherous bit of animal creation.” Vincent van Gogh could do without a left ear, but life and limb would be a terrible thing to lose in the pursuit of imitating nature.

Top Image: Two Amur tiger cubs swat at each other at the Bronx Zoo’s Tiger Mountain exhibit. Photo by the author.


Milner, R. 2012. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York: Abrams.