ByJean Marie Carey

On 20 August 1858 Charles Darwin first published his theory of evolution through natural selection in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. No other scientist is more closely identified with art, and, contrary to the notion that evolution places theology and biology at odds, at the time of Darwin’s research, his work was received with pleasure by European culture, particularly by Italian artists who already had a long history of combining a love of aesthetics with the quest for empirical knowledge.

In fact Darwin’s impact on the visual arts in Italy was immediate, integrating these new ideas about the natural world into the creation of spectacular artefacts, including representations Darwin and his subsequent book, 1859’s Origine della Specie, and interpretations of the English botanist’s phylogenetic charts and diagrams, annotated with what was already the language of the biological sciences, Latin. Illustrator,s architects, and sculptors embellished their work for churches with elaborate drawings, lush foliage carvings, and polychromatic marble friezes that celebrated a natural world still seen as a manifestation of the divine, prefiguring Art Nouveau and Jugendstil.

Reference: Martin Kemp and Craig Ashley Hanson. “Science and art.“ Grove art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed August 14, 2017,

Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem, c.1506-8. Windsor Castle. Royal Library.

Ernst Haeckel, Latin inscriptions in Pyhlogenetic tree I. Tree of Life from Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Allgemeine Grundzr organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, mechanisch begr. durch die von Charles Darwin reformirte Descendenz-Theorie, 1866. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, RMC2004_2228.

Stefano Buonsignori, Polyhedral Dial (timekeeping device), c. 1550. Istituto e museo di storia della scienza, Florence

Medardo Rosso, Ecce Puer, 1906. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nr. 5724.

Paolo de’ Matteis, An allegory of Divine Wisdom and the Fine Arts, c. 1680. The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, Los Angeles.

Mural showing Darwin and his books, c. 1890 at the Museo di anatomia Umana dell’Università di Torino.

Further Reading: Hugh Ridley. Darwin Becomes Art: Aesthetic Vision in the Wake of Darwin: 1870-1920. New York: Editions Rodopi, 2014. h

Joseph Carroll. Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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