Peabody renovation offers unique view of iconic dinosaur mural

Photos by Dan Renzetti

Mariana Di Giacomo regularly peers into the menacing orange eye of a Tyrannosaurus rex. She checks the ancient predator’s dagger-like teeth and inspects his grayish scales.

As the Peabody Museum of Natural History undergoes a full-building renovation, the conservator has been charged with keeping a close eye on “The Age of Reptiles,” the beloved, panoramic mural depicting 319 million years of plant and animal evolution stretched across the east wall of the museum’s dinosaur hall.

T. rex commands the left side of the sprawling scene, which features an all-star cast of dinosaur species. Di Giacomo must ensure the prehistoric beasts, and the lush, vibrant landscape surrounding them, emerge from the renovation intact. It’s a big job. At 110 feet long and 16 feet high, the mural is one of the world’s largest paintings.   

I basically need to memorize every inch of it,” Di Giacomo said. “That way, I can spot any changes.”

The mural, which was created by artist Rudolph F. Zallinger ’42 B.F.A. ’71 M.F.A. between 1942 and 1947, is shielded behind a specially designed protective scaffolding. The structure’s two tiers provide Di Giacomo a unique, up-close view of the iconic painting, which generations of museum visitors have gazed upon from below. 

The close perspective reveals details that are difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate from the floor.

On a recent afternoon, Armand Morgan, a senior instructor for public education at the museum, stood on the bottom tier of scaffolding which now encloses the mural. He soaked in the scene on the right edge of the mural, which depicts the late Devonian Period — the painting’s earliest vignette.

This is amazing,” he said. “It gives you a whole new perspective. You can see Zallinger layered all sorts of depth on this wall. There’s so much detail.”

He pointed to the blurry outline of a fish swimming underneath shimmering water near the mural’s bottom edge.

Everybody misses this,” he said, explaining that the submerged critter is a species of Cheirolepis, an extinct genus of predatory freshwater fish that predated the earliest dinosaurs.

The unusually close vantage point reveals a wealth of details: blue sky peeking through clusters of brightly colored leaves; reflections on water; blood dripping from the claws of a feasting Allosaurus; individual scales covering the hulking Triceratops; a glint in the Brontosaurus’ green eye.

The close range makes the panorama’s smaller creatures, like Cheirolepis, easier to spot and admire. Meganeuropsis, which resembles a bright-blue oversized dragonfly, perches atop a thick reed overlooking the water. The symmetrical pattern of orange and pale-blue shapes on its thorax is fit for a butterfly’s wings. Podokesaurus, a tiny dinosaur of the Triassic Period, scurries over rocky ground with its slender tail raised. (The species was named by Mignon Talbot, who in 1904 became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology from Yale. It was the first dinosaur species named by a woman.) Cimolestes, an early mammal, drags its rodent-like tail behind it at the mural’s far left edge. Volcanoes belch smoke in the distance — symbolic of the approaching mass extinction.

Standing on the scaffolding in front of the mural allows viewers to perceive how Zallinger organized the space, Morgan explained.

You’re looking down on the plants and animals in the bottom third, on level with them in the middle third, and from below them in the top third,” he said, pointing out how the viewer sees the underside of the leaves above and the backs of the beasts below. “You lose that perspective from the hall’s floor.”

The perch also provides a sense of Zallinger’s experience as he painted the mural while standing on a trolley-like apparatus reached via a ladder.

Creating a prehistoric masterpiece

Zallinger was a student at the Yale School of Fine Arts, now the Yale School of Art, when the museum hired him to create some paintings of dinosaurs for the Peabody’s Great Hall. In the final year of a five-year program, he had studied Medieval and Renaissance art, including Italian frescoes. The yawning expanse of blank wall inspired him to paint a single mural instead of several smaller paintings, Morgan said.

He didn’t want to break up the space,” he explained.

Having limited knowledge of prehistoric plant and animal life, Zallinger consulted with the museum’s curators and sketched out potential scenes on a 10-foot roll of paper. Once he’d decided on the mural’s composition, he made a series of drawings to work out its scale and tonal values — how dark or light it would appear. Next, he spent a year making a 12-inch-by-82-inch egg-tempera preliminary painting of the scene. The scene would span the late Devonian Period, when land-dwelling vertebrates emerged, through the Cretaceous Period, when T.rex topped the food chain.

As the young artist toiled away, the wall’s brick face was covered with steel lath and plaster. Once the plaster dried, Zallinger began transferring the composition from the egg-tempera painting to the wall.

He covered the wall in a grid of 2-foot squares and divided photographs of the egg-tempera painting into 1.5-inch squares. Using charcoal, Zallinger drew the contents of each square of the painting onto the corresponding square on the wall. Once finished, he painted the prehistoric scene directly onto the dry plaster — a wall-painting technique called fresco-secco. He worked during museum hours and visitors sometimes chatted with him as he painted, Morgan said. He completed the mural in the summer of 1947.

The work earned Zallinger the 1949 Pulitzer Scholarship in Art. (He received $1,500. At the time, a Pulitzer Prize for journalism paid $500.)

In 1953, Life magazine published the entire painting in a foldout. (The magazine used the egg-tempera study since the mural was too large to be rendered onto its pages.) The mural’s T. rex influenced the design of Godzilla, the nuclear-powered, prehistoric sea monster that made its motion picture debut in 1954. The Marx Toy Company produced a popular line of toys based on Zallinger’s dinosaurs.  

The mural had a gigantic impact,” Morgan said. “It shaped the way people imagined dinosaurs for generations.”

Preparing the mural for new generations

While the mural’s portrayal of dinosaurs and plant life is scientifically outdated, the painting remains a captivating work of art that captures people’s understanding of dinosaurs during the 1940s, Di Giacomo said, and must be carefully preserved.

Conservators will clean the mural before construction inside the hall begins. The scaffolding will be enclosed with plywood forming a climate-controlled box around the painting. The interior air will be filtered. Clear acrylic windows will provide views of the painting from outside. Monitors will immediately alert Di Giacomo if construction-related vibrations become too intense. She will perform regularly inspections. 

It will be cleaned and conserved again for exhibition before the museum reopens,” she said.

Zallinger’s “The Age of Mammals,” a 60-foot long and 5.5-foot high mural he completed in 1967 portraying mammal species that inhabited western North America beginning more than 65 million years ago, is encased in a similar protective shell in the adjacent hall, which houses mammal fossil specimens.

The Peabody’s renovation was made possible by a $160 million gift from Edward P. Bass ’67 in 2018. The project will increase the museum’s exhibit footprint by 50% and create new spaces for research and teaching with Peabody collections. The dinosaur hall’s showpiece skeletons, including the Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus, will be prepared and remounted into more natural and scientifically accurate poses. The museum is expected to reopen three years from now.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324