Pick from the Past
Natural History, February 1938

What Are They Thinking?

Characteristic facial expressions, postures, and movements are the key to an understanding of animal psychology and the soul of animal art.

Charles R. Knight’s murals and other paintings are displayed extensively in museums and private collections, and his works have set a standard throughout the world in the painting of both modern and prehistoric animals.
Click image for large veiw.
Cover: Young lioness,
from a drawing by Charles R. Knight
Early in life he attended the art school at the Metropolitan Museum, and later pursued his studies at the Art Students League. He has studied the anatomy and movements of living animals both in the zoos of this country and those of Europe. His versatility and unique genius are evident in the uniform excellence of his animal pictures, landscapes and portraits. Mr. Knight is the author of
Before the Dawn of History, which is widely read by the public and used in educational institutions. Another book on prehistory for younger readers and also one on Comparative Psychology and Anatomy of Animals will shortly appear in print. —The Editor [1938].

Charles R. Knight (1874–1953) is famous for his ground-breaking depictions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, and of wildlife in general. As this article shows, his patient observation of captive animals—even those confined to the primitive cages commonly found in zoos of the time—enabled him to learn a great deal about animal behavior in the wild. Millions of people are exposed annually to Knight’s works in major institutions around the world, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. For more information and additional illustrations, visit The World of Charles R. Knight and the other links given below. —The Editor [2007]

ou have probably often been among the thousands who visit the scores of zoos each day throughout the world. Then you may well ask yourself how far you were able to deduce the emotions and thoughts of the animals you watched, for this is the keynote of the pastime of understanding animals and of the art of portraying them realistically with pencil, brush, or modeling clay.

Some morning when you are feeling particularly alert and fit, stroll into the lion-house and notice how quiet everything is in the various cages. Our lordly friend—the Bengal Tiger—is probably asleep, lying on his back, feet in air, in an attitude of complete relaxation. The King of Beasts himself (not quite so kingly at this early hour) is just waking up, yawning, stretching himself and gazing lazily about in a rather owlish fashion. A restless leopard paces slowly back and forth, and the lion-cubs are having their morning toilet. How they snarl and shrink away as the rough tongue of the lioness washes the dirt and grime from their soft and yielding bodies! Everything is peaceful here at present, a perfect cow stable or sheepfold atmosphere pervades the place, with no signs of the fierce and savage traits that will manifest themselves later in the day when hunger and the sight and smell of food arouses these inherent characters.

Slowly as the hours pass, a subtle change comes over the assembled felines. First one and then the other rises and begins to walk, exercising if you will, but not consciously we may be sure. Occasionally dreary howls come from the tiger’s cage where the great striped brute is already casting off his figurative sheep’s-clothing and gradually changing before our very eyes into the ferocious killer of the Indian jungles. Lions, both male and female, are practicing in concert heavy, dour and terrible sounds that in their native Africa strike terror to the herds of game coming down to drink at the water-hole. Leopards, pumas, jaguars—all are slowly but surely disclosing to our awed and interested eyes just what it means to be a hungry carnivore. But if you have not observed them with more than usual attention you have not discovered how differently from other animals these creatures exhibit their feelings and thoughts.

Rage in Three Guises. Different animals express the same emotion in many different ways. Above are shown a bear, a bull, and a horse in their characteristic postures of anger. A bear that has risen on his hind feet, with teeth bared and fore paws ready to strike, is a bear to he feared. A bull, on the contrary, instead of rearing up, lowers his head and charges full speed with sharp horns foremost. Other horned animals use a similar attack, but a stag, when it has shed its antlers, will use only its hoofs, apparently realizing his seasonal disability. An angry stallion, as shown above, will display extreme ferocity, rising on its hind legs and striking terrible blows with fore feet or seizing its adversary with its powerful teeth. A mare, on the contrary, will wheel and kick with her hind legs. Though a frightful adversary, the horse is far removed from the flesh-eaters. Standing gracefully on its one-toed feet, long-legged, deep-chested and powerful, it depends primarily on its speed and stamina to out-distance its enemies.

All drawings by Charles R. Knight

Feeding time

Noon-hour has passed and an ever-increasing excitement is apparent among the inmates of the great cat house. Ever fiercer and more continuous are the growls, snarls and roars of the now really hungry felines which seem to know almost to a minute the time when the door at one end of the long building will open and admit the keeper, wheeling in a barrow the daily supply of fresh meat. Feeding time at last!

The odor of bloody flesh strikes nostrils well accustomed to the smell, and then a sort of frenzy breaks loose all along the line of cages. Our tiger, no longer a sleepy, docile looking creature, leaps back and forth in the narrow confines of his den—fire flashing from the golden eyes, the great fore-paws armed with wicked looking talons stretched eagerly forward to seize the food thrust under the bars at the front of his cage. A harsh coughing roar greets the keeper as the huge piece of gory flesh is snatched from the iron fork and the long, yellow canines close over it with a vise-like grip. Determination, ferocity, power—all these flash before our eyes—emotions (not anatomy) impress themselves upon our vision at this crucial moment and we as human brings are afraid, aghast, before this exhibition of tremendous and terrible energy. Back rushes the great striped beast to the farthest corner of his cage where, crouched low over the coveted repast, he alternately growls and bites off great pieces of meat which he swallows whole. In no time only a broken shin-bone or a shoulder blade remains of what was after all a meager portion of food for so large an animal. These gruesome objects are soon rasped clean by the rough pink tongue, and again a curious somnolence comes over the lithe and sinewy body of the great cat.

The water which the keeper brings and pours into a shallow pan is lapped up eagerly but now with no terrible growlings or show of anger. For the tiger, the business of the day is finished and there is nothing ahead of him but sleep, exercise and a looking forward to the same sort of repast twenty-four hours hence.

We have just seen (perhaps with rather startled eyes) a major example of what constitutes a very interesting phase of feline nature, but are we able to analyze and possibly reproduce on canvas or in clay, or even accurately describe, just what has so lately and forcibly impressed us? I feel certain that we can not unless we have had a great deal of previous training. Have we noticed for example just how the tiger crouched to grasp his fancied prey or what emotion he is showing at the moment, and how that emotion will be expressed anatomically? Evidently the intense desire for food has temporarily transformed the erstwhile mild and placid beast into a fiend incarnate, and strange things have happened in the big cat’s brain to alter his usual mood of callous indifference. Rounded ears were back and down, held tightly against his head; the great eyes blazing with a greenish fire; and the terrible jaws widely opened. Lips drawn back; nose wrinkled and whiskers pointed forward; canines exposed, and curled up tongue—all served to create that terrible and sinister facial mask without a parallel in the whole realm of animal life.

Long observation

And how, we ask, does one succeed in observing all these points when everything happens so quickly? For answers, we can only say that practice and familiarity with what is likely to occur allow us to register, however imperfectly, the fleeting phases of the profound emotion we have just witnessed. I have dwelt at some length upon these mental and muscular reactions of a tiger under a given stimulus because they are typical of all the feline tribe, both large and small, and present a striking contrast to what occurs in the case of a horse, for example, under the same conditions.

This latter animal, a swift-running, grass-eating creature, must of necessity be built on very different lines from those of the flesh-eaters. Yet it can and does show anger, fright and kindred expressions whenever the necessity arises. Food, for an animal of this type, is easily procured and involves no struggle with a victim or another individual of its own species. Hence no powerful emotions are involved, no show of anger, no bodily contortions. Yet the horse on other occasions may exhibit tremendous and violent action. A stallion fighting with another male displays extreme ferocity as, rising on its hind legs, it strikes terrible blows with the fore feet or seizes its adversary with its powerful teeth, cutting, slashing and maiming a weaker or more timid antagonist. Mares on the other hand wheel and kick with their hind legs delivering a shower of well directed blows against a real or fancied enemy. Indeed a vicious horse, in its own way, is quite as formidable as the tiger itself, especially in captivity where its lack of fear of man counts heavily in its favor. Primarily, however, the horse is in all its actions far removed from the flesh-eaters and certainly in a wild state depends upon its superior speed and stamina to out-distance its enemies. Standing gracefully on its one-toed feet, long-legged, deep-chested and powerful, it is eminently fitted for a life in the open where speed and endurance count so much in the struggle for existence.

Rarely do we see animal reproductions that reveal a truly profound insight into the character of the creature represented. A survey of many contemporary works suggests that a too superficial knowledge of this fascinating branch of artistic expression has proved a distinct handicap to otherwise clever producers, and that a closer study of the living animal would be of great advantage to the profession as a whole.

Movement baffling

Animal painting is a difficult art, more particularly if one is serious minded and not just dabbling with no real aspirations in any particular line. The mere fact that, as a rule, our animal model is in more or less continuous motion in no wise lessens our problem, and the play of the muscles over the body skeleton as the creature moves to and fro is calculated to make a beginner decidedly head-weary before many hours have passed. The various and complicated motions of so familiar an animal as a horse when walking, running or jumping are full of a peculiar rhythm, but owing to the rapidity with which these movements are executed, they are certainly baffling to the untrained eye, whether we regard them as subjects for artistic rendering or as physiological material of a very interesting sort. Indeed, a day spent before a restless animal will probably send one back to the studio in a rather chastened and humble mood.

But don’t let us be discouraged at these first attempts, because after all we may be able to produce fairly good things from quiet models, landscapes, perhaps, still life or even human figures—objects which stay put as it were, and which do not get up and walk right out of the picture or curl up and go to sleep in a dark corner! Apparently it may all resolve itself into the fact that we are not sufficiently prepared to do the work which seemed so easy at the start, that it has proved to be far more difficult than was at first apparent and perhaps it behooves us to begin all over again and get at the subject in quite a different way.

Far more than in figure painting, therefore, it is necessary to know something of the anatomy of the creature you desire to portray, and you simply must acquaint yourself with the important points in its general physical make-up. But one must also have an insight into the psychology behind the animal’s actions because this psychology is the controlling element in its emotional responses.

The Tiger stands forth as a shining example of lithe and rhythmic motion controlled by a rather crude mentality and an innately ferocious disposition as befits a real killing mechanism. The three drawings show the change of expression and posture of a tiger in three successive moods. Note the change in the angle of the ear, which is one of the telltale features.

Relaxation is evident in every line of the tiger that is thinking neither of food nor an enemy. The neck is comfortably at ease, the ears are at rest, and the eyes are focused on nothing in particular. Here the dangerous killer of the Indian jungle shows almost the complacency of a house cat.

(Above) At the approach of possible danger the tiger lowers its head and flexes its legs for rapid forward movement. The ears go alertly forward and the eyes and nostrils grow sensitive in the effort to size up the foe.

(Right) The ears are thrown back as the beast, suddenly ferocious, bares its teeth and emits a terrifying roar.

“Animal pantomime”

The student is, therefore, strongly urged to study what we may call “animal pantomime.” For it is the actions and postures which an animal displays that reveal its principal emotions—fear, anger, curiosity, sex attraction or repulsion. This being so the writer, a worker of many years standing, desires to call attention to certain important points about this fascinating subject—points which he believes, after long experience, will be a help to those similarly interested.

Our tiger stands forth as a shining example of lithe and rhythmic motion and beautiful color controlled by a rather crude mentality and an innately ferocious disposition as befits a real killing mechanism. Between this animal and the swift but non-aggressive horse, whose herbivorous habits are reflected in a disposition at complete variance with the typical flesh-eating animals, there are many other types, each with its peculiarities, mental and physical, strongly developed and unique in their way. Elephants, camels, horned animals—as the cattle, sheep, deer, antelopes, etc.—the swine, the bears, dogs and a host of others are all wonderful and interesting creations in the sphere of mammalian life. All are rare combinations of mental and physical characters in which either as artists or students of animal behavior, we will find endless opportunities for study.

You have seen that the reactions to a given emotion are quite different in a tiger and a horse; and in turn the pose that will be assumed by an angry bull, dog, or deer is likewise distinctive. Animals that have found themselves in possession of some outstanding advantage (such as the horny head growths in creatures like the cattle, deer and goats) are very quick to make use of the superior powers and change their method of attack and defense accordingly. Consider, for example, how a bull or a stag when alarmed or angry instantly lowers the head in an attitude of defiance, and when sufficiently excited charges at full speed against an adversary. No such action as this is noticeable in our tiger or horse simply because their fighting implements are employed in an entirely different manner. It would seem as though the presence of the sharp and dangerously pointed head growths actually impressed itself upon the mentality of the animals. The stag as an instance (whose antlers are shed annually) will, when in a hornless condition, depend entirely upon its sharply pointed hoofs in fighting, feeling no doubt the lark of its former, well-developed safeguards. On the contrary, weak spots in the anatomy are also realized by the creature possessing them and one sees an elephant raise the delicate and sensitive trunk high out of harm’s way in avoiding the charge of an angry tiger, at the same time trying to crush the infuriated cat under its massive forefeet.

The drawing of the cover of this NATURAL HISTORY is of a young lioness observed by the writer in a zoological garden. Her expression denotes maternal anxiety, for a keeper was moving about in the distance and she is watching him closely for fear he may approach and steal or molest her cubs. Alert and fiercely determined to defend the helpless babies at all hazards, the female lion is a most dangerous antagonist to either man or beast. In this case the man is too far away to elicit a demonstration of anger from the big cat, but a closer approach would instantly transform her anxious expression into one of extreme ferocity.

Psychology of animals

Both in clay and on canvas, the writer feels, and he trusts with reason, that over-emphasis has perhaps been laid in recent years upon the necessity for knowledge of animal anatomy without sufficient importance being ascribed to the psychological aspects of the same problem. That the two things are very closely connected seems to be beyond dispute and as a concrete example of their successful combination let us look at the work of the great French animal sculptor of the last century—Antoine Louis Barye. This man working in the poorly exhibited collections in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was nevertheless able, by dint of hard work and great genius, to produce many splendid examples of animal sculpture, which have not been equaled, let alone surpassed, in this generation.

His marvelous small bronzes of feline animals in action, his splendid elephants, bears and many other creatures, are all exceedingly “alive,” filled with energy and correct as to both anatomy and psychology. He seems to have understood thoroughly the mental attitude as well as the physical proportions of his models, so that when he makes a tiger seizing a crocodile, or two bears fighting, one feels instinctively that the attitudes and the anatomy are correct. In other words the tiger is grasping the saurian in a truly tigerish fashion and the bears fight and wrestle with one another just as you have seen them in your visits to the zoo. Mind controlling matter is very evident in these groups and Barye chose the only logical approach to his subject when he so successfully combined the two. It seems necessary, therefore, that we work more or less from the inside out to do a really fine painting or model of an animal and no amount of merely artistic technique in the superficial finish of our production will compensate for a lack of knowledge on this vital point. Both mentally and physically we must to a certain extent “feel” the attitude we wish to portray in order to grasp the co-ordinated rhythm of the animal’s body and mind under a given stimulus of emotion. Lack of knowledge on this important point is what makes so many attempts at animal portrayal rather poor, meaningless accomplishments without truth or interest.

An understanding of the principles often enables one to understand what is wrong with a painting or model which otherwise is only vaguely “not just right.” You have no doubt seen animal actors on the screen who are made to go through the motions but do not convey an authentic impression of the emotion intended. One can almost see the director off-stage with a biscuit in his hand. A poor animal painting is just as incongruous to a practiced eye. It cries out that the artist has not created the right emotional effect.

Action without distortion

The artist must also take care not to distort anatomy under the delusion that he is thereby increasing the action of his figure. Mere distortion is not necessarily action—that is not true action—even though the physical framework of an animal may under certain abnormal conditions assume the pose we have indicated. Correct rhythm is always beautiful, majestic and inspiring and represents perfect muscular control so that we should always strive hard to attain this effect in our work in paint or clay. Never forget the mind behind the muscular action. The boxer’s pose differs greatly from that of the fencer because the mental objectives are quite unlike each other, and they are both good examples of the fact that it is really the position of the bones of the skeleton rather than the shapes of the muscles which contribute action to a figure. The muscles of a tiger, for example leaping upon its prey, are not greatly different from those of the same creature in a reclining or walking position, but the placement of the bones, particularly of the limbs, is vastly different. Muscles, of course, clothe and move the bony framework of the body and contribute their own peculiar forms to the silhouette, but they merely serve to soften the outlines of the skeleton which fixes the attitude of any given figure—man or animal—upon the retina. One may see this point well exemplified in the splendidly mounted skeletons of horses in the Museum collections where without a vestige of fleshy covering, the attitude of the bones themselves convey to the mind of the spectator a perfect picture of the creature in motion.

Still another phase of this many-sided subject may prove of value to the potential art student and even the interested layman, and that is the very great differences in the proportions of certain sets of bones in various species of animals.

Many strange and diverse “sitting” postures are displayed by different well-known animals. The camel is one of the few animals that touches the knee joint to earth. The long hind feet are bent sharply at the heel or ankle and come forward again inside the lower leg in a most confusing and unusual pose. Horses, cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer and goats twist the hindquarters sideways, one leg under them and one leg free.

Diverse postures

All the mammals—man himself excepted—are essentially four-footed. The great apes do, on occasion, progress for a time on their hinder pair of limbs, but their usual method of walking is on all fours. Birds on the other hand are two-footed, the fore legs being converted into flight organs by the addition of the feathers. Reptiles again use all four limbs in walking or standing. One hardly realizes unless after careful observations, the many strange and diverse attitudes assumed in walking, standing or reclining by a number of well known types, as for example by the elephant, camel, bear, cat, horse and dog. Of all mammals the elephant is the only one that may be really said to kneel when reclining. That is, his true knee joint, the first below the hip, actually touches the ground while his very short hind foot sticks straight out behind. Camels also touch the knee joint to the earth, but their long hind feet are sharply bent at the heel or ankle joint and come forward again inside the lower leg, a most confusing and unusual pose. Bears lie while resting on their bellies, the whole of the hind leg back or with the knee upraised—the man-like hind foot pressed to the earth. Cats, dogs, and their allies also have the knee upraised, the foot touching for the entire length. Horses, cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer and goats twist the hind quarters sideways, one leg under them and one leg free as in the dog or cat. Just why these differing positions should be assumed we cannot truly say, though in the case of the elephant it would seem to give the enormously heavy creature greater facility in rising from the ground to a standing position. While the foregoing points are strictly anatomical facts as always there must be some powerful agency at work which guides the muscular and bony form in certain very definite directions, producing as usual complete harmony in the creature’s make-up.

The elephant is the only mammal that can really be said to kneel when reclining. His true knee joint, the first below the hip, touches the ground while his very short hind foot sticks straight out behind.

Peculiarities of the elephant

For some reason, the elephant although much used in the art of certain countries is seldom represented with a true knowledge of its real characters. The tusks themselves are very difficult to draw, and their proper position and growth in the head of the pachyderm will require close observation. They are usually and absurdly indicated as growing from the lower instead of the upper jaw. As a matter of fact, the tusks are merely very much elongated and specialized upper incisor teeth, growing downward on either side of the trunk from a point in front of the eye-sockets. Also their shape and manner of growth is most peculiar as they turn in a sort of cork-screw fashion throughout their entire length. First down and out then up and in—a very subtle twisting form difficult to understand and portray.

Psychologically the elephant is, of course, a most interesting animal, big but intelligent, easily trained and with a most extraordinary command of its huge and ungainly body. The flexible and unique trunk is its most distinguishing feature, but mentally and physically it is unlike any other animal now living. The gait is peculiar—a swift shambling walk or amble, the foot-falls being very close together and well under the body. All in all a majestic and impressive creature—one of the strangest and much the largest of all the land-mammals of our time. In this huge and massive brute we see to perfection the superior intelligence which so successfully controls the massive body, the marvelous proboscis with its powerful and well directed mechanism, the gigantic form and the great post-like legs executing under direction seemingly impossible feats of skill—all requiring balance, strength and brains to a surprising degree. Thus we might proceed indefinitely in our survey of the life about us for with increasing knowledge a fresh vista of interesting phenomena opens out—intriguing, fascinating and highly instructive in every way.

Attention and a trace of anxiety are shown in the lioness. This attitude may instantly change to one of rage, with ears back and fangs bared.

I have tried to show that at least a superficial knowledge of psychology, anatomy and behavorism are all part and parcel of a must-be-acquired equipment which should he carried along on your life adventure in this rather strenuous field of endeavor. Even our own behavior is made up of so many attributes that we fail to realize the infinite complexity of every movement or analyze the brain stimuli which produce an emotional response. So it is with the whole world of animate creation—mind and body being inextricably mingled to create the thing we call a living creature. How very important it is, therefore, to make an intense and careful study of all the different factors that enter into the make-up of the particular animals we may wish to portray. Without a fair amount of knowledge on the subject our work will be sadly lacking in character, wishy-washy and devoid of interest both to ourselves and to the world in general.

All art work should be undertaken as a joy and a pleasure, not as mere drudgery but as something very absorbing, extremely interesting and remunerative, at any rate esthetically if not in a practical way. To explore even a few of these mysteries from whatever point of view most appeals will surely demonstrate very convincingly the joy of deeper understanding of Nature’s story—a bit of truth and knowledge that we may call our own.

See more works by Charles Knight

See Selections from “Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Cavemen: The Art of Charles Knight” a changing exhibition that toured U.S. and Canadian museums for seven years.

“Knight at the Museum,” a selection of Knight’s work, will be opening at The Florida Museum of Natural History, in Gainesville, on April 21, 2007.

See the tiger paintings on view at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum in Oradell, New Jersey.

Visit The World of Charles R. Knight.

Click image for large veiw. Calendar of Charles R. Knight murals
in the Field Museum of Natural History

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See Amazon.com ordering information.

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