Earth's Endless Forms: The Fascinating Interchange between the Revolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Art of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries Is Explored in a Groundbreaking Interdisciplinary Exhibition

USA TODAY, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Earth's Endless Forms: The Fascinating Interchange between the Revolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Art of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries Is Explored in a Groundbreaking Interdisciplinary Exhibition


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THE IDEA OF A LINK between Charles Darwin (180982), the scientist, and the visual arts is at first surprising. Yet, Darwin was highly receptive to the visual traditions he inherited. In turn, his ideas about the natural world and man's place in it had a profound impact on European and American artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By opening a new perspective on man and his origins, 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, particularly his theories concerning protective camouflage and sexual display.

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In Darwin's day, scientific discoveries were discussed widely by the public at large. William Dyce's iconic "Pegwell Bay" and early photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot show just how directly his contemporaries engaged with new research in geology and paleontology. Darwin began his career as a naturalist in the field of geology and was impressed by emerging theories about the age of the Each and the forces that had shaped its crest. In the exhibition, this changing view of the landscape is reflected in the shift from paintings (by J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Cole) that evoke biblical notions of a universal flood to those by John Brett, Thomas Moran, Paul Cezanne, and Claude Monet, which focus on landscape features shaped by the action of dynamic natural forces such as glaciers, geysers, and erosion.

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For Darwin, the great age of the Earth had made possible the slow evolution of species by "natural selection." This only could occur through an endless "struggle for existence" among animals and humans. Many artists of the 19th century shared Darwin's fascination with the idea of struggle, and they increasingly were influenced by Darwin's vision of the complex interplay among all living things. Examples range from Sir Edwin Landseer's scenes of nature "red in tooth and claw" to the lyrical paintings of the great Swedish wildlife artist Bruno Liljefors. The struggle also took on a human guise, in pictures of the dark underside of Victorian society by Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer.

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In his seminal 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin hinted at man's ape origins, a theory that famously and controversially was spelled out in The Descent of Man (1871). Artists and 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 (Fernand Cormon and Ernst Griset) also proliferated, as well as visions of human ancestry that were more fantastic and introspective, such as Odilon Redon's rare lithographic series, "Les Origines. …

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Earth's Endless Forms: The Fascinating Interchange between the Revolutionary Theories of Charles Darwin and Art of the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries Is Explored in a Groundbreaking Interdisciplinary Exhibition
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