In The Descent of Man, Darwin focused his discussion of sexual selection on birds, 'the most aesthetic of all animals after man.' Male birds attracted mates by 'the power of song', 'love-antics or dances', and especially by 'ornaments of many kinds.' Ornament included the brilliant, often iridescent, colours of 'highly decorated' species, such as birds of paradise. Darwin also discussed the patterns on plumage and the optical effects they created when displayed.
|Birds of Paradise, Paradisea minor; three mounted skins of male birds: adult, immature (lacking full tail feathers) and juvenile.|
|Case of thirty-five stuffed hummingbirds, with species in the genus Agyrtria, 1851 (restored 2008 by Derek Frampton)|
The peacock and the argus pheasant in particular provided him with telling evidence for his theory of sexual selection. Nature could rival man in producing effects that were 'more like a work of art than of nature.' Darwin thought the 'ball and socket' ocelli, or eye-markings, of the argus pheasant were among the most artful ornaments of all birds, and likened their perfection to a painting by Raphael.
Among the 'most splendid of living birds,' the peacock had featured prominently as a motif in European and Asian art for many centuries. In nineteenth-century Britain, it was one of the natural forms most closely associated with the Aesthetic Movement, appearing throughout the 1860s and 1870s in paintings and decorative schemes by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his disciple and friend Frederick Sandys, James McNeill Whistler, and many others.
|'1. Argus ocellatus' by J. Smith after Joseph Wolf, from A Monograph of the Phasianidae, or, Family of the Pheasants by Daniel Giraud Elliot (1835–1915). New York: D. Elliot, 1872|
Darwin’s analysis of birds’ plumage highlighted the fact that abstract form and colour in themselves could be considered beautiful: a view that was also held by avant-garde artists and writers, most especially the Impressionists.
Birds of Paradise, Paradisea minor; three mounted skins of male birds: adult, immature (lacking full tail feathers) and juvenile.
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge
Case of thirty-five stuffed hummingbirds, with species in the genus Agyrtria, 1851 (restored 2008 by Derek Frampton)
The ornithologist John Gould collaborated with Darwin from the late 1830s, notably on the publication of his Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.
This case—which has been restored especially for this exhibition-is one of a group that housed nearly fifteen hundred hummingbirds from Gould’s collection. During the Great Exhibition of 1851, he exhibited his astonishing collection to over 75,000 visitors in a glass-roofed pavilion at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park. He heightened the visual experience of these 'living gems' by displaying them in cases on revolving stands—to emphasise the metallic glint of their iridescent coloured feathers and by suspending them amidst realistic foliage in poses that simulated flight. Hummingbird skins were highly prized by collectors, and often fetched prices comparable to the precious stones (topaz, ruby, amethyst, emerald) after which they were named.
Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (Bird Group, Tring)
'1. Argus ocellatus' by J. Smith after Joseph Wolf, from A Monograph of the Phasianidae, or, Family of the Pheasants by Daniel Giraud Elliot (1835–1915). New York: D. Elliot, 1872
This magnificent volume, written by the American naturalist Daniel Giraud Elliot, contains a number of illustrations of the argus pheasant by Joseph Wolf, Darwin’s friend and collaborator. The feathers shown in this plate are those of the crested argus (1–3) and the extinct double-banded argus (4), the latter known only from part of a primary feather from a shipment imported into London in 1871. Elliot worked in England between 1869 and 1879 in close partnership with Wolf, to whom this volume was dedicated. Both men were ornithological conservationists and strongly opposed to the plumage trade.
Cambridge University Library
Pen and black ink
‘We ought not to accuse birds of conscious vanity; yet when we see a peacock strutting about, with expanded and quivering tail-feathers, he seems the very emblem of pride and vanity’ (Descent, 2, 94).
With its highly showy tail feathers, peacocks were considered as symbols of vanity, an association that was reinforced as they were adopted by the Aesthetic movement in England in the 1860s and 1870s.
Here, the Austrian draughtsman Kubin wittily reverses Darwin’s notions of sexual display: it is the neatly-dressed woman who displays her magnificent tail feathers in front of a group of dazzled male admirers.
Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz
Oil on canvas
Sandys’s gipsy lover, Keomi, is here depicted in the role of Vivien, the sensual enchantress who seduced Merlin in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859). Shown in half-length against a halo of peacock feathers, she bears in one hand a sprig of daphne, a poisonous plant associated with the femme fatale, and with the other reaches toward an apple, the symbol of the Fall of Man. Tennyson’s poem came to be considered the prototype of the 'fleshly' poetry of Rossetti and other romantic poets.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin quoted from the Idylls of the King in the context of his discussion of the comparative 'mental powers' of man and animal: 'The highest stage in moral culture at which we can arrive', he wrote, is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and 'not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us'.
Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester City Galleries