YCBA celebrates Darwin’s influence

Though Charles Darwin revolutionized scientific thought, his work transcends the world of biology — he has been an inspiration to artists for decades.

In celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” the Yale Center for British Art and the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge are exhibiting a collection of works inspired by Darwin’s life and writings. The exhibit, “Endless Forms,” features about 200 diverse works of art from more than 100 museums and private collections. Over 30 couriers from all over the world delivered 50 shipments of art, said British Art Center curator Elisabeth Fairman, senior curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection had enormous resonance in the artistic community as artists began to depict nature through a different lens, the exhibit’s curators said. For instance, biblical themes, such as deluge, in nature paintings gave way to the idea that physical phenomena, such as erosion, cause earthly change.

“This is not going to be a typical art exhibition,” said curator Diana Donald, former professor of art history and head of the Department of History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University. “This is an exhibit where art and science are held in balance.”

The exhibition begins with a portrait of Darwin, the “venerable sage presiding over the exhibition,” as Donald put it.

Themed rooms guide the viewer from Darwin’s influential trip on the USS Beagle to impressionist artwork responding to his theories.

“This is exactly the kind of exhibit you don’t skip around,” said curator Jane Munro, senior assistant keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Throughout the exhibit, natural formations such as the aqua mineral beryl, spiral seashells and dinosaur bones from the Peabody Museum are juxtaposed against paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, illustrated books and natural specimens. Serene taxidermic birds of paradise, contrasted with birds, bloody and devouring each other, are the centerpiece.

“One had to abandon the harmony of Eden,” Donald said as she referenced the ferocious dinosaurs in Robert Farren’s painting, “Duria Antiquior.” “From the start, there had been carnivorous animals that could feed on the gentler dinosaurs.”

Drawings of Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos hang in the exhibit, though they do not encompass the “immensity of the trip,” Donald said.

Instead, curators noted, it is Darwin’s writings about evolution — notably “On the Origin of Species” and later, “The Descent of Man” — that have elicited artistic responses since the mid 19th century.

“You may think you know your impressionists,” Munro said. “However, you may not realize that impressionists were always in contact with Darwinian scientists in France.”

She also explained artists’ desires to prove Darwin’s theories, though their interpretations range from the literal to the metaphoric. In the vein of Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, the exhibit features artists who depicted a struggle for survival in Victorian society, Donald noted. One room symbolically sets Hubert von Herkomer’s “On Strike,” which portrays a worker and his family, opposite Edwin Landseer’s painting of dying elk called “Morning.”

“More creatures are always born than the earth can support, and the weak die as nature’s losers,” Donald explained, drawing a connection between Darwin’s theories and the two works.

Though countless artists were clearly inspired by Darwin, “Endless Forms” shows the opposite is also true: Darwin himself was inspired by artwork.

Anthropomorphic art is hard for many to take seriously, Munro said, which makes it difficult to believe that Darwin used these works as the foundation for one of the most fundamental ideas of modern science.

“Anthropomorphic pictures gave Darwin raw materials for his ideas,” Munro said as she discussed Darwin’s contemporaries.

Of the works Darwin might have seen, Briton Riviere’s “Fidelity” depicts a faithful dog comforting his master, an arrested poacher, and Edwin Landseer’s “Alexander and Diogenes” shows dogs acting out the classical myth referenced in the title.

In front of a large audience at the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall that required a simulcast across the street, Dame Gillian Beer, a professor emeritus from the University of Cambridge and Andrew W. Mellon senior visiting scholar, mused about Darwin’s non-scientific side in her lecture “The Backbone Shiver: Darwin and the Arts.”

“Darwin’s perceptions were sustained and challenged by the visual world,” Beer said, pointing out that music, poetry, landscape, fiction, paintings and prints all could have affected Darwin’s ideas.

Darwin particularly loved novels, even when he lost the love of other arts such as poetry, Beer added.

“The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness,” Darwin himself wrote.

“Endless forms” runs through May 3 and the British Art Center will host a number of events throughout the semester to continue the celebration of Darwin’s centennial.


  • Theo Tsourdalakis

    Your article is interesing, although it is disapointing in the sense that Darwin's concern about his theory have been confirmed thus bringing discrediting it.

    The assertion that life came from non life is scientifically non repeatable and hence non "scientific".

    Darwins theory of evolution has morphed from science to phylosophy to faith.

    We need to back to the scientific method and sceptically scrutinize Darwins claims on the basis of scietific evidence rather than wishfull philosophy.

  • Dawkins is God

    Where does Darwin say life came from non-life? I don't think he does. Besides, I have yet to hear any other theory that has more basis in scientific and observable fact than evolution or even the Big Bang (which is NOT the point of this article, by the way).

    Do you have one that doesn't involve supernatural fantasy as a means to achieving mental, physical and cultural oppression of many for the benefit of the few?

  • @ #2

    Do you have one, number two? You forget very quickly how many people were persecuted under "social darwinism" and were eradicated for the sake of eugenics in a quest for "survival of the fittest." Neither side is innocent. This is what the first responder meant by it's turned from a theory into a faith. Evolution is a theory, period. Most Christians accept the theory of evolution, but not the faith. Also, where exactly did Darwin say life came from life? What was the life before that life?

  • @ #3

    Darwin did not support "social darwinism" in any way and actually warned against. Don't get that confused with evolution.

  • #2

    #3, not sure what you're asking. Do I have an alternative theory to evolution? No, evolution seems like the best we've got going. It certainly beats any other religiously-inspired mumbo-jumbo to explain the natural world we see around us. I'd hardly call my acceptance of the theory "faith" as it doesn't change any outcomes in my behavior or outlook. From my perspective, there is certainly more evidence supporting that theory than any religiously inspired explanations to the diversity of life, extinct and current, on this planet. I'd certainly be curious if you think there is.

    What exactly do you mean by "faith" in the theory? Those Christians who "accept" the theory are accepting what exactly? Does that mean some of them accept that God's hands aren't in the current creatures or geology but were in the earlier ones? God is only an occasional creator? An occasional interventionist? Who has the right answer? If the degree of God's role is determined by what organization you affiliate your belief structure with and how devoted you are, then I guess lots of people think they have the answer, but of course, really don't--it is just their belief structure talking. It is unsubstantiated pap being fed to them century after century, for what purpose or benefit I cannot conceive.

    I'd be hard-pressed to say that your statement that Christians accept evolution but don't have faith in it makes much sense. What faith is there to have in evolution exactly? I think you've just underscored a tenet of my belief structure--faith in something that doesn't exist is a just mental exercise, and I find it pointless. Having faith doesn't change anything, though I certainly can see it does make some people feel and behave better (and worse). I don't need any opiate of faith, I'm just happy to be here and to be my own moral compass.