Charles Darwin at 200: Science and Art

[This article first appeared in The Guardian.  The exhibit it describes ended in October, but a slideshow of it can be seen on line at the website:   and click on the virtual exhibition button   — Lew Rosenbaum]

Darwin anniversary: Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful

An exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge explores the mutual influences of science and art 150 years ago when Darwin published On the Origin of Species

Tim Radford Thursday 11 June 2009 17.31 BST

Charles Darwin, natural science and the visual arts: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar DegasView larger pictureLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen by Degas, the “simian” figure people said would look more at home in a museum of natural history. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian

When Charles Darwin changed the course of science, he also created turbulence in the stream of art. A new exhibition will next week seek to demonstrate that fresh thinking 150 years ago about the evolution of landscape, living things and humankind indirectly and sometimes directly influenced painters such as Degas, Cezanne and Gauguin.

In turn, artists also influenced Darwin: an extraordinary painting of dogs by Sir Edwin Landseer may have provided some of the impetus for Darwin’s late masterpiece The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Edgar Degas is known to have read The Expression of Emotions in 1874, after its publication in French. On show will be one of his most iconic works, a bronze statue of a little dancer: it caused a stir at its first appearance a few years later.

“Degas, if you like, is looking at higher and lower forms of human, in what he does best, which is looking at his own society, and that is what makes him troubling and challenging, and a bit of a bastard, because he is provocative,” says Jane Munro, curator of paintings, drawings and prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and one of the exhibition’s creators.

“He looks at cabaret singers, little dancers, criminals. He gets special access to a court and draws criminals in the dock in a murder trial. And he gives them very animalistic expressions and he is very famously known for saying that women at their bath and their tub look like animals.”

The little dancer was first displayed modelled in wax, with a gauze skirt, and under a glass case. “When she was first exhibited it was said she had very simian-like appearance, an upturned nose; that she looked like an Aztec; that she looked like something that belonged to the museum of medicine or a museum of natural history but not the museum of arts,” says Munro.

“In addition to the physiognomy, there were two things that played into that assessment, and that was: one, the original was made out of wax, like things you see in the history of medicine, or natural history, so the very material she was made out of created that impression. And then she was also exhibited in a display case. You may say: so what? It wasn’t common.”

The exhibition was prompted by a suggestion from one of Darwin’s descendants, and put together by Munro and Diana Donald from Manchester Metropolitan University, with help from the Yale Centre for British Art in the US (where it first opened in February this year on what would have been Darwin’s 200th birthday).

The exhibition takes its title from the last sentence of On the Origin of Species, published 150 years ago, ” … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.

It includes paintings that reflect some of the art world’s awareness of scientific debate before 1859, along with work by artists such as the ornithologist John Gould, who certainly influenced Darwin, and a host of illustrated responses to Darwin’s revolutionary thesis, some of them direct, some of them somewhat lost in translation.

In this context, paintings of the Biblical flood by Turner and others reflect an early 19th century geological preoccupation with diluvianism (could a great flood explain the presence of marine fossils in the Pennines or the Alps?).

Dramatic taxidermy involving an eagle attacking a heron – shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – and a Landseer study of a dead stag both illustrate the poet Tennyson’s famous line about “Nature red in tooth and claw.”

A study by William Dyce of Pegwell Bay, complete with stratified and eroded cliffs, shows how much the new science of geology had begun to direct the observer’s eye. Paintings of flowers, mammals and prehistoric creatures suggest a fresh awareness of the struggle for existence. Later studies of men and women and mythical figures dramatise a new preoccupation with human origins.

Some of the connections with Darwin are direct, some are more tenuous. The Abduction, an early study by Paul Cezanne, is usually supposed to illustrate something from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But Munro also sees a Darwinian connection.

“Cezanne was a young man, but as a young man just as he went swimming with Zola, he went with this bloke Antoine-Fortune Marion who became director of the natural history museum at Marseilles; and Marion would expound on the fossil finds and on Darwin at the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the place we all associate with Cezanne, so it seems to me why not invite a rethinking about that picture in that context?”

Paul Gauguin, too, was exposed to Darwinian ideas. The famous Tahitian painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? takes its title either directly or indirectly from a book by a Ludwig Buechner, a German materialist who had read Darwin and who had addressed the implications of science for religion.

“You would be right to say Darwin didn’t provoke that, but Darwin was implicated. Religion isn’t giving you an answer to where you are going. Can science and all the number of scientific theories that are being presented at the time? Can it?” says Munro.

Other paintings and objects have more immediate relevance. There are bird paintings by Audubon and a restored display of stuffed humming birds mounted by Darwin’s illustrator John Gould, along with scientific studies Darwin would have known from his Cambridge student days, and images of Victorian poverty that reflect the Malthusian struggle for existence, another stimulus for Darwin’s thinking. Among them is Landseer’s Alexander and Diogenes, a deadpan painting of canine encounter.

“We laugh at it, we think it’s a great joke. Landseer was immensely popular in the 19th century with his landscape paintings and somehow, now, you know, bit of a joke,” she says. “Grown up people who like grown up art might think it is a bit silly. But Darwin had a photograph of this leading up to his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.”

A painting by James Tissot evokes the panoply of sexual display by men and women as pertinently and as prettily as the sumptuously painted feathers of pheasants and peacocks and birds of paradise, or cartoons of mad millinery from the humorous magazine Punch. A scandalous 1879 series by Felicien Rops illustrating imaginary bestial sex was actually called Les Darwiniques.

“What this exhibition isn’t about is cause and effect,” Munro says. “This exhibition is to do with reception: it is to do with what people understood, what they didn’t understand, what they got wrong, how they conflated his ideas with other things. But a significant number of the artists in the exhibition we know read Darwin or knew about Darwin one way or the other. What they then do with it is something else.”

Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts was at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from 16 June to 4 October