Darwin believed that, while female animals actively chose their mates, the natural modesty or 'coyness' of women gave them a more passive role. Yet, by the 1880s and 1890s, his theory of female choice as part of sexual selection among animals was perversely considered as a key factor in the emergence of a different kind of woman: part-Amazon, part-dominatrix, coldly intellectual but also dominated by base animal urges. Despite himself, Darwin became implicated in the challenges that the emancipated 'new woman' represented to the social order.
In England, 'wild' or 'new' woman figured in novels and widely read journals during the 1880s, preceded in mid-century by the sensuous femmes fatales of painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom some critics accused of unhealthily extolling ‘fleshiness as the distinct and supreme end.’ The Belgian painter and printmaker Félicien Rops produced particularly potent images of her character and her fashionable sexual weaponry. His research into new woman was even compared to that of an 'implacable Darwin': just as Darwin had revealed the primitive state from which contemporary man had evolved, so Rops had 'plucked out ... [the] ... white feathers of Woman' to reveal the 'hideous membranes of pterodactyl fossils, flying, malevolent monsters'.
Girl at a Lattice, 1862
Oil on canvas
In his theory of sexual selection, Darwin described the beautiful features among animals that were used to attract mates-colour and pattern in particular. Around the same time, avant-garde artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced works that he intended should be appreciated for the sheer beauty of their colours and forms rather than for the subject they depicted. From the 1860s onwards, Rossetti explored these abstract qualities of paintings in a series of images of languorous women. Often, as here, they are shown no more than half-length, in decorative, claustrophobic settings, appearing almost as captives in the picture space.
Many critics considered that his representations of women emphasised their animalistic natures. Robert Buchanan famously derided the artist in his essay 'The Fleshly School of Poetry' (Contemporary Review, 1871), arguing that Rossetti’s females 'bite, scratch, scream, bubble, munch, sweat, writhe, twist, wriggle, foam, and in a general way slaver over their lovers'-which made him long for a return to the 'asexual state described in Mr. Darwin’s great chapter on Palingenesis' (presumably a reference to Darwin’s discussion of the pre-gendered hermaphroditic state in chapter four of Origin).
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The Lady with the Doll and a Fan, 1877
Watercolour and coloured crayon over graphite with highlights in bodycolour
'Men! . . . you will always seem, to me, no more than feeble puppets to be toyed with by women for their sport'. — Félicien Rops, 1884
Rops collaborated widely with authors and poets throughout his career, most famously with Charles Baudelaire, who influenced his vision of woman. He produced several books with Octave Uzanne, who shared—and possibly fed—his interest in contemporary female fashion. Rops’s own research into contemporary woman was likened by critics to that of Charles Darwin, the observational scientist.
Rops made several versions of the subject shown in this engraving-a woman toying with a broken, dapperly-dressed, male puppet—between 1877 and 1890. Each version becomes increasingly more menacing: in this version, the woman holds the feminine weapons of a glove and a fan; later, she holds a dagger.
Despite his own conservative views of woman’s role in society, Darwin became associated with the troubling new form of emancipated woman emerging, through his theory of sexual selection in which the female (although not, in Darwin’s theory, the human female) chose her mate.
Collection Anne Pascale Babut de Marès
Transformismes (Les Darwiniques), no. 2, ca. 1879
Etching with watercolour highlights
Darwinique no. 2 depicts copulation between a burly naked woman in slippers and a creature made up of a fantasy composite of sexual organs: breast, vulva and phallus, endowed with an unsettling beady eye. Here Rops seems to refer to a specific passage in The Descent of Man, where Darwin entertained the possibility that some 'extremely ancient mammal possessed organs proper to both sexes, that is, continued androgynous after it had acquired the chief distinctions of its proper class'. (1, 208)
Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur