Martin Johnson Heade - Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871 - Oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

Cambridge, UK - The fascinating interchange between the revolutionary theories of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and art of the late nineteenth century is explored in a ground-breaking interdisciplinary exhibition opening at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in Summer 2009. Organised by The Fitzwilliam Museum in association with the Yale Center for British Art—two of the world’s leading university art museums — “Endless forms”  will coincide with the global celebration of the bicentenary of the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). The exhibition will show at the Yale Center for British Art from 12 February – 3 May 2009, and at The Fitzwilliam Museum from 16 June to 4 October 2009.

The idea of a link between Darwin, the scientist, and the visual arts is at first surprising. Yet, as this landmark exhibition demonstrates, 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 nineteenth century. 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. 

Edwin Landseer Alexander and Diogenes (detail), exhibited 1848, Oil on canvas Tate, London, Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859In Darwin’s day scientific discoveries were widely discussed by the public at large. William Dyce’s iconic Pegwell Bayand 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 earth and the forces that had shaped its crust. 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 Cézanne, and Claude Monet, which focus on landscape features shaped by the action of dynamic natural forces such as glaciers, geysers, and erosion. For Darwin, the great age of the earth had made possible the slow evolution of species by “natural selection.” This could only happen through an endless “struggle for existence” among animals and humans.

Many artists of the nineteenth century shared Darwin’s fascination with the idea of struggle, and they were increasingly 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.

In his seminal book On the Origin of Species, Darwin hinted at man’s ape origins, a theory that was famously, and controversially, 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. In formulating his theory of natural selection, Darwin also set out to explain the “preservation of favored races in the struggle for life.” A remarkable series of anthropological photographs explores the new concepts of race and human cultural development that emerged in response to his ideas.

James Tissot - 'Men of the Day No. 33,' from Vanity Fair, 30 September 1871 Chromolithograph - Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon CollectionElsewhere, artists reacted to the disturbing possibility that humankind could regress as well as progress. Most notable in this respect is Edgar Degas who, after reading Darwin’s works, explored the possibilities of degeneration in a series of images of criminals and dancers. A wealth of paintings, drawings, and sculpture will explore the ways in which Darwin’s ideas of man’s relation to animals, particularly apes, shook religious belief and redefined man’s place in the natural world. Visual sources used by Darwin for his Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) are drawn from the collections of original Darwin material at Cambridge University Library, which will be on display to the public for the first time. The exhibition will also explore what Darwin found beautiful in the natural world, especially the courtship behavior of birds and its analogy to sexual attraction in humans. These ideas are played out in the work of artists as diverse as James Tissot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Martin Johnson Heade, and Edward Lear.

 “Endless forms” brings together a remarkable variety of nearly two hundred objects and works of art, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, early photographs, caricatures, illustrated books, and a spectacular range of natural history specimens. It features loans from more than one hundred institutions, including Tate Britain; the British Museum; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the National Gallery, London; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art; the Natural History Museum, London; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University; Nationalmuseum Stockholm; the Louvre; and Musée Marmottan, Paris; as well as from private collections. In this way “Endless Forms” unites world-renowned masterpieces by artists such as Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Turner, Church, and Landseer, with intriguing works by fascinating, lesser-known artists such as Bruno Liljefors and Félicien Rops. A notable feature of the exhibition will be the telling juxtaposition of art works and scientific material, from maps of geological stratification and botanical teaching diagrams to colored ornithological specimens and a dazzling array of minerals.

CATALOGUE : A fully illustrated publication, edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro, will be published by The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press (January 2009).

CREDITS :“Endless Forms”: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts has been organised by The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, in association with the Yale Center for British Art. The exhibition has been curated by Diana Donald, independent scholar and former Professor of Art History and Head of the Department of History of Art and Design at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Jane Munro, Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Prints at The Fitzwilliam Museum. The organizing curator at the Yale Center for British Art is Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

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Brancusi on Essence

"What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things . . . it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface."