Scientist of the Day - Erwin Christman
Erwin S. Christman, a paleo-artist and sculptor, died Nov. 27, 1921, at the young age of 36. Christman was one of the finest dinosaur artists who ever lived, although his reputation is greatly overshadowed by that of his contemporary, Charles Knight. Christman worked for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City for 15 years (where Knight was also employed), but hardly anything is known about Christman, we don’t even know when or where he was born. He first shows up in the visual record in 1907, when he drew the first Tyrannosaurus rex skull for Henry Fairfield Osborn, and what a debut that was! The drawing survives in the AMNH archives (third image), along with many other drawings. When Osborn wanted to mount T. rex in 1912 (the museum now had two specimens), Christman produced a scale-model diorama that was far in advance of most museum mounts, depicting the two theropods actively quarreling over dinner (fourth image). The proposed model was rejected in favor of a more placid mount, since no one could figure out how to mount the heavy bones in such a dynamic posture.
In 1921, Osborn published an extensive monograph on Camarasaurus, a large sauropod not that different from Brontosaurus. Christman was given the assignment of doing the skeletal restorations, and also executing a number of wash drawings that are incredibly detailed. In our 1996 exhibition, Paper Dinosaurs, we displayed Osborn’s publication, and one of the prints we exhibited showed three reconstructions of the head of a Camarasaurus, in three different, shall we say, "moods" (second image). The AMNH has the original Christman drawing from which this printed illustration was made (first image).
At the time we did Paper Dinosaurs (over 20 years ago), we were convinced that an uncredited illustration of a Struthiomimus that appeared in the Bulletin of the AMNH in 1916 was done by Christman (fifth image). Most people who see the plate in the journal assume it is a photograph. But under close inspection, it is clearly a wash drawing. Charles Knight never made a drawing this fine, so we see no reason to change our opinion that this plate was printed from an unacknowledged Christman drawing.
The AMNH has a photograph of Christman working on a sculpture of a brontothere (sixth image). It may be the only surviving image of Christman that we have.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.