Who decides what dinosaurs looked like?

It’s not just scientists. Since the 1830s, artists have tried their hand at depicting ancient creatures we’ll never see in real life. Their look at an imagined past has made its way into textbooks, museums and the popular consciousness.

A new book delves into the history of those colorful imaginings. "Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past" is packed with paintings, sculptures, murals and other art culled from archives, private collections and museums all over the world.

Walton Ford, an artist known for creating complex naturalist-style illustrations of imagined scenarios, curated the collection along with writer Zöe Lescaze. Together, they tell the history of paleo art from 1830 to 1990. The art form started when dinosaurs won widespread attention in the Victorian era.

With only bone fragments or skeletons to work from, artists improvised. They didn’t always get it right: Because paleontology was far from infallible, artists often depicted dinosaurs that look nothing like the animals that current science suggests. And the artists projected the styles and social prejudices of their age onto the scenes they created, writes Lescaze, who finds evidence of British imperial ambitions in images of dominant dinosaurs in tropical climes.

The paleoart of recent decades has fewer erupting volcanoes and bloody underwater battles. But the old stuff isn’t extinct: You can still spot memorable examples, such as Charles R. Knight’s dramatic murals — packed with cave men, woolly mammoths and a riveting standoff between a T. rex and a triceratops — in Chicago’s Field Museum.

With a list price of $100, the book is an investment. But for a dino lover, its coffee-table dimensions and nearly 300 pages of vivid illustrations mean the book is a worthy buy. Epic in size and scope, it’s a passport to a past that no one ever witnessed — and that may be a journey worth the price.

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