Darwin’s Impact on the Visual Arts Is Illustrated in Exhibit

The ways in which the revolutionary theories of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) influenced the art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is explored in a new interdisciplinary exhibition opening on Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Yale Center for British Art.

Titled “‘Endless Forms’: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts,” the show coincides with the celebration worldwide and on campus (see related story) of the bicentenary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” (1859).


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Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts
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The exhibition — organized by The Fitz­william Museum, University of Cambridge, in association with the Yale Center for British Art — takes its title from a passage in Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” In it, he writes: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

While the naturalist is closely linked with the scientific world, note organizers of the exhibition, “The idea of a link between Darwin, the scientist, and the visual arts is at first surprising. Yet, as this landmark exhibition shows, Darwin was highly receptive to the visual traditions he inherited. …

“By opening a new perspective on man and his origins,” the organizers add, “Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection provided fertile territory for the creative imagination. Artistic responses were wide-ranging: from imaginative projections of prehistory to troubled evocations of a life dominated by the struggle for existence to fantastic visions of life-forms in perpetual evolution. Darwin’s response to the beauties of the natural world also permeated artistic images of color and pattern in nature, in relation to both protective camouflage and sexual display.”

Darwin began his career as a naturalist in the field of geology and was impressed by emerging theories about the age of the earth and forces that had shaped its crust. In the exhibition, this changing view is reflected in the shift from paintings that evoke biblical notions of a universal flood to those focusing on landscapes shaped by the action of dynamic natural forces such as glaciers, geysers and erosion.

For Darwin, the great age of the earth had made possible the slow evolution of species by “natural selection.” This could only happen, he contended, through an endless “struggle for existence” among animals and humans. As the exhibition reveals, many artists of the 19th century shared Darwin’s fascination with the idea of struggle, and they were increasingly influenced by the naturalist’s vision of the complex interplay among all living things.

In his book “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin hinted at man’s ape origins, a theory that was famously, and controversially, spelled out in his work “The Descent of Man” (1871). Artists, like the public at large, soon reacted to the disturbing implications of this theory. Satirical caricatures abounded, but imaginative images of prehistoric life by academic painters and illustrators also proliferated, as well as visions of human ancestry that were more fantastic and introspective.

In formulating his theory of natural selection, Darwin also set out to explain the “preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.” A series of anthropological photographs in the exhibition explores the new concepts of race and human cultural development that emerged in response to his ideas. Elsewhere, artists explored the idea that humankind could regress as well as progress.

A number of paintings, drawings and sculpture in the exhibition explore the way Darwin’s ideas of man’s relation to animals, particularly apes, shook religious belief and redefined man’s place in the natural world. Visual sources used by Darwin for his “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872) are drawn from the collections of original Darwin material at Cambridge University Library, which will be on display to the public for the first time. The exhibition will also explore what Darwin found beautiful in the natural world, especially the courtship behavior of birds and its analogy to sexual attraction in humans.

“Endless Forms” brings together a wide variety of nearly 200 objects and works of art, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, early photographs, caricatures, illustrated books and a range of natural history specimens.

It features loans from more than 100 institutions, including Tate Britain; the British Museum; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the National Gallery, London; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art; the Natural History Museum, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale; Nationalmuseum Stockholm; the Louvre; and Musée Marmottan, Paris; as well as from private collections.

“Endless Forms” includes world-renowned masterpieces by artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, J.M.W. Turner and Edwin Landseer, as well as works by lesser-known artists such as Bruno Liljefors and Félicien Rops.

A notable feature of the exhibition will be the juxtaposition of artworks and scientific material, from maps of geological stratification and botanical teaching diagrams to colored ornithological specimens and an array of minerals.

The exhibition has been curated by Diana Donald, independent scholar and former professor of art history and head of the Department of History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Jane Munro, curator of paintings, drawings and prints at The Fitzwilliam Museum. The organizing curator at the Yale Center for British Art is Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of rare books and manuscripts.

A fully illustrated publication, edited by Donald and Munro, will be published by the The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Yale Center for British Art, located at 1080 Chapel St., is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is accessible to individuals using wheelchairs. For further information, call the center at (203) 432-2800 or visit the website at www.yale.edu/ycba.

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