“Endless forms”: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts

Thursday, February 12, 2009
Sunday, May 3, 2009

The year 2009 marked the anniversary of two significant moments in the history of science and culture: the bicentenary of the birth of the renowned English naturalist Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). To commemorate both events, two of the world’s leading university art museums—the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and the Yale Center for British Art—collaborated to organize a ground-breaking exhibition that was a highlight of the global celebration of Darwin’s bicentenary. “Endless forms”: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts illustrated how important visual traditions were to Darwin. It also showed the imaginative and diverse ways in which nineteenth-century artists in Europe and America responded to Darwin’s ideas. The exhibition featured a remarkable variety of objects that united science and the visual arts, including paintings, drawings, early photographs, prints, cartoons, rare illustrated books, dramatic taxidermy, and fossils. Works were drawn from institutions and private collections internationally. Several of the objects in the exhibition were on public display for the first time in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The exhibition title “Endless forms” referred to Darwin’s vision of a natural world in which the evolution of complex organisms from “So simple a beginning” gave rise to “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” a phrase that could also describe the many imaginative responses in the visual arts to Darwin’s ideas.

Robert Havell, the Younger, Red Tailed Hawk (detail), 1829, hand colored etching, Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Fund

“Endless forms”: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts
was curated by Professor 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 was Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.


Yale Center for British Art:
February 2–May 3, 2009

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge:
June 16–October 4, 2009