Darwin at The Fitzwilliam Museum

Published on Culture 24

Endless Forms: Darwin – Natural Science and the Visual Arts, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until October 4 2009

An 1838 print from The Penny Magazine shows us Jenny, sitting on a chair, wearing children’s clothes, holding a ball. It’s remarkable, because this little lady was a captive Orangutan. Jenny was one of the first apes to appear in London, dead or alive.

It was the same year Charles Darwin first sketched his famous evolutionary tree in a notebook and added the words, “I think.” Apes weren’t only a bit like children – they were also our ancestors. It was an imaginative leap that would compound the public’s fascination for monkeykind.

There was, of course, some horror. Our new relatives were traditionally viewed as clever but sadistic animals. The Cat’s Paw, by Sir Edwin Landseer, depicts a monkey enlisting an unlucky cat to extract chestnuts from a fire.

But looking more closely, artists soon picked up on more innocent qualities. An 1852 watercolour by Joseph Wolf shows a young chimpanzee who could almost be one of the family. Darwin must have been impressed, since he later employed Wolf to help him prove that some simians actually smile.

This is just a fraction of what can be gathered at a brilliant exhibition to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Darwin. It clearly demonstrates that geology, paleontology, natural selection and anthropology have inspired a good share of 19th and early 20th century art, and it documents the crucial role illustrators and artists played in the development of evolutionary theory.

There are a smattering of masterpieces on display, including Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Degas. This bronze sculpture caused uproar at the time, when critics compared the subject to an animal. They may have been missing the point, because Darwin’s theories on our kinship with beasts were a direct influence.

Other big names include Turner, Cézanne and Monet, but of equal prominence here are some lesser-known figures who would barely register in a history of art. John Gould, who was both ornithologist and illustrator, accompanied Darwin on his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, and was the first to recognise the differing species of Finch and Mockingbird.

It was to prove a vital discovery to science and, ultimately, of no less importance to art.

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