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.