Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts

By Pettus, Peter | New Criterion, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts


Pettus, Peter, New Criterion


"Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts." Yale Center for British Art February 12-May 3, 2009

Joining the many global celebrations commemorating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, the Yale Center of British Art in New Haven has staged a wide ranging and fascinating exhibition called "Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts." Organized by the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University in England with the collaboration of the Yale Center, the exhibition both reveals the cultural and visual environment of Darwin's time and explores the impact of Darwin and his revolutionary ideas on the art of the later nineteenth century. Dividing their exhibition into discrete categories (The History of the Earth, The Struggle for Existence, The Descent of Humankind, etc.), the curators have assembled a wealth of visual material including paintings, sketches, models, and photographs to illustrate Darwin's work and its impact.

We are confronted straightaway with the powerful, unforgettable portrait of Charles Darwin painted (posthumously) by John Collier in 1883. With his piercing eyes and powerful brow, the "Great Disturber" stands alone, an unflinching island of calm in the midst of the swirling debate he unleashed during his lifetime and ever since. To suggest the visual environment prevailing in Darwin's early days, we see many examples of the natural life drawings of insects and flowers that were so popular at the time, including a remarkable giant rendering of the head of a flea. Here also are many of the natural specimens Darwin himself collected (including some exquisite skeletal heads of pigeons) plus extensive material relating to his long voyage of discovery on the H.M.S. Beagle. The new discoveries of geology and paleontology fascinated the public, and images of imaginary creatures in weird ancient landscapes proliferated. One wild example in the exhibit by Robert Farren, called An Earlier Dorset (c. 1850) shows a whole range of toothy prehistoric reptiles in an aquatic death struggle with pterodactyl-like creatures in a dogfight above.

New geological research was also changing ideas of the Earth's age. Different artists reacted in different ways. Some, like Thomas Cole (The Subsiding of the Waters [1829]) and J. M. W. Turner (The Evening of the Deluge [1843]), continued to paint Creationist versions of the biblical flood, while others, including William Dyce and Thomas Moran, concentrated more on depicting the natural forces shaping the earth. Thus the stage was set for the dramatic philosophical conflict between religion and science that has always been at the center of the Darwinian revolution. An illustration of this was the interesting acquaintance between Darwin and John Ruskin. Both men were keen observers and deeply involved in the emerging study of the earth sciences.

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