Art Exhibit Links Darwin to Degas

Museum / by Jerry Guo /

A new exhibition reveals the extent of Darwin’s impact on 19th-century artists, from Monet to Rheinhold, and how art, in turn, shaped Darwin.

Surrealist artists claimed Freud, the cubists looked to Einstein, but Charles Darwin’s influence on his 19th century artistic contemporaries has rarely been fully appreciated. In celebration of his bicentennial birthday this year, Connecticut’s Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and the UK’s Fitzwilliam Museum—the art museum to which Darwin would escape from college classes at Cambridge—have launched Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts [Get info], a traveling exhibit that properly takes stock of the impact Darwin’s evolutionary theories had on the visual arts. The exhibit moves from Yale to Cambridge on June 16. (Story continued below.)

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Robert Farren, Duria Antiquior (An Earlier Dorset), ca. 1850, oil on canvas, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge.

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John Collier, Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin, 1883, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London. 

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William Henry Simmons after Edwin Landseer, The Sick Monkey, 1875, mixed media engraving on chine collé, British Museum, London, Department of Prints and Drawings, © Trustees of the British Museum.

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Lens Aldous, Head of the Flea, ca. 1838, hand-colored lithograph, Hope Library, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

degas little dancer
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Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, n.d., bronze cast with fabric skirt, from an original of ca. 1878–81 in wax and mixed media, Private Collection.

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Martin Johnson Heade, Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871.

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Odilon Redon, “The misshapen polyp floated on the shores, a sort of smiling and hideous Cyclops,” plate 3 from Les Origines, Paris: Lemercier & cie, 1883, one of a series of lithographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Lee M. Friedman Fund.


It’s hard to exaggerate just how widely Darwin’s ideas on natural selection and the evolution of human kind traveled in the cultural milieu of his day, even in the age of stagecoaches and month-long journeys across the Atlantic. Artists of all shades reacted to his revolutionary theories, and this exhibit attempts to capture their range of responses in all sorts of mediums, including paintings, photographs, sketches, and sculptures. Sprinkled amidst 200 works of art are historical collections of natural wonders like beetles, fossils, gems, stuffed birds, and plated flowers. These items give visitors a distinctly visual sense of what artists—and Darwin himself—grappled with during the Victorian era, as academic science began to challenge the subjective nature of romantic art.

The exhibit categorizes Darwin’s artistic influence into tidy themes like the Darwinian “struggle for existence,” the ancient history of earth, the kinship with other animals, the origin of man, and the nature of beauty as a product of sexual selection. But perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of Endless Forms—an allusion to the ending of his 1859 masterpiece On the Origin of Species—is the revelation of how art influenced Darwin. Just as Darwin introduced Victorian sculptors and French impressionists to scientific order, artists helped the young naturalist draw a connection between details in nature and his bubbling ideas on evolution.

Take for instance, the astoundingly thorough 17th century engraving of a gnat’s eye or the intricate drawing of the common milkwort flower by Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, the botanist John Stevens Henslow. According to curators at YCBA, these depictions of adaptation and complexity in part inspired Darwin’s thoughts on natural selection. Most famously, his thesis that the beaks of Galapagos finches were uniquely adapted to each island stemmed from a series of lithographs drawn by the ornithologist John Gould and are on display in the exhibit near a case of stuffed birds of paradise.

But the biggest draw—both for audiences of his time and museumgoers today—may be the depictions of apes. With the publication of The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwinian became synonymous with simian; the exhibit in fact includes Victorian political cartoons that caricature Darwin as a foolish chimp. Near the exhibit entrance are two sculptures that reflect the conflicting societal views of human evolution: One is Hugo Rheinhold’s iconic pose of an ape holding a human skull, deep in thought, juxtaposed next to Emmanuel Frémiet’s shocking Gorilla Abducting a Woman.

Some of the other displays are more subtle. It’s revealed that Edgar Degas, best known for his miniature ballerinas, drew inspiration for his careful sculpting of facial expressions from Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. And though it’s hard to tie Cezanne’s painting of a cistern to evolutionary theory, the curators give it their best shot: They point to the rock in the background as evidence of a new curiosity about geology. Monet’s 30 successive paintings of the Rouen Cathedral in northwestern France are seen through the lens of natural selection. This nuance bleeds a bit into head-scratching subjectivity.

A modest drawing of the Andes holds an indisputable place of honor in the gallery—it’s one of the only known drawings by Darwin himself. In contrasting the majestic strokes of the impressionist masters with Darwin’s childish squiggles and uneven shading, the exhibit makes clear that Darwin was brilliant, but also very self-aware. He knew to leave art to the artists.

Originally published June 6, 2009

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