Feast Your Eyes on These Artistic Visions of Earth's Prehistoric Past

Upside-down unicorns are involved.

|
Jun 29 2017, 10:00am

Powerful adversaries embroiled in fights to the death. Tranquil tableaus of lush landscapes lost to time. Evolving artistic conceptions about the lifeforms that preceded us on Earth.

These are a few of the captivating snapshots collected in Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, a gorgeous visual history of artwork inspired by Earth's extinct life written by Zoë Lescaze with a preface by Walton Ford, due out from TASCHEN on July 3.

Image: Courtesy of TASCHEN

Beginning with the 1830 watercolor "Duria Antiquior" by Henry De la Beche, which is considered to be the first visual depiction of ancient life based on fossil evidence, Lescaze offers a whirlwind tour of paleontology-inspired paintings, mosaics, lithographs, sculptures, advertisements, and other creative renderings of bygone species from the past 200-odd years.

Her mission is to pull this enormous and diverse body of work from the shadows of academic interest and into the mainstream. "How does paleoart, with its flamboyant history spanning centuries and continents, remain an overlooked genre?" Lescaze asks in the book.

"The works are dazzling and their subjects beloved, but the term does not mean much outside of rarefied circles. Paleoart overlaps the worlds of natural-history illustration and fine art, but it does not fully belong to either. Instead, it occupies a nebulous niche of its own, one that has been largely ignored."

Read More: Mud Dragons, Tully Monsters, And Toothed Whales: The Best Paleo Art of 2016

Compiled from a wide range of sources, from museum archives to obscure private collections, Paleoart offers up many visions of the past that will impress even the most dedicated fans of the genre. Scroll on for our highlight reel of the book's stunning vistas of the good old days on planet Earth, and the life that thrived there.

The Primitive World by Adolphe François Pannemaker (1857)

Image: Courtesy of TASCHEN

Pannemaker's colored engraving depicts a world of biological and geological violence. In the foreground, a showdown between two sharp-toothed rivals is watched by an audience of menacing creatures, while the background is awash with volcanic eruptions, thunderbolts, and random fire tornadoes.

Pre Historic Animals and Reptiles (Unknown artist, 1889)

Image: W. J. Buel/Courtesy of the authors and TASCHEN

This wildly anachronistic menagerie brings fantastical beasts and fauna from numerous epochs together in a jumble of biodiversity. Extra points for the upside-down unicorn in the background.

Pteranodon by Heinrich Harder; Tile reconstruction by Hans Jochen Ihle (1982)

Image: © Aquarium Berlin (Photo by Waldemar Brzezinski, Berlin, original illustration by Heinrich Harder)

The German artist Heinrich Harder (1858-1935) was an influential figure in paleoart who produced dozens of rich scenes depicting extinct life. He designed and installed tile mosaics of his illustrations at the Berlin Aquarium, such as this portrait of a gliding pteranodon with Japanese-inspired flourishes in the background. These pieces were destroyed in Allied bombings of the city during World War II, and were reconstructed during the 1980s.

Edaphosaurus by Heinrich Harder; Tile reconstruction by Hans Jochen Ihle (1982)

Image: © Aquarium Berlin (Photo by Waldemar Brzezinski, Berlin, original illustration by Heinrich Harder)

Another one of Harder's reconstructed mosaics at the Berlin Aquarium, this time featuring the sail-backed Edaphosaurus that lived some 300 million years ago.

Late Cretaceous Landscape of the South Gobi by Mai Petrovich Miturich-Khlebnikov and Viktor Aronovich Duvidov (1986)

Image: Mai Petrovich Miturich-Khlebnikov and Viktor Aronovich Duvidov/ Borissiak Paleontological Institute RAS

Painted in egg tempera, this enchanting scene of Cretaceous life is one of the most unique finds in the book. These fantastical, almost folkloric tones were "common in Soviet paleoart," Lescaze notes. Check out a close-up of the middle section of the painting to get a sense of the granular detail.

Tree of Life by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov (1984)

Image: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS

This spectacular terracotta installation at the Orlov Museum of Paleontology in Moscow dramatizes the evolutionary history of life on Earth in a style that seems more consistent with hagiographic church frescos. Hundreds of meticulously crafted species line the museum, from fish at the bottom panels to mammals at higher levels, all topped by a Madonna and her child at the installation's zenith.

Chasmosaurus—Dromaeosaurus by Ely Kish (1974-1975)

Image: Eleanor Kish, © Canadian Museum of Nature

To close out our preview of Paleoart, here's Canadian artist Ely Kish's evocative oil portrait of a carnivorous dromaeosaur scavenging the remains of a chasmosaur. The Sun in the low horizon of the left hand corner, along with the desertified landscape, seems to symbolize the impending end of the age of dinosaurs.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.