In his own day, Darwin was best known for his theory that man had evolved from an apelike ancestor, and was therefore related to other primates such as the chimpanzee and the gorilla. Although he had avoided dealing with the implications of this idea in On the Origin of Species, he was closely identified with it in the public's consciousness from the 1860s onwards. Many caricaturists of the time even delighted in portraying Darwin himself as a semi-ape. In The Descent of Man, Darwin threw caution to the winds. Man had descended from a 'hairy, tailed' monkey, but his ancestry could ultimately be traced back to 'some fish-like animal'. Humans retained many animal characteristics, according to Darwin. Their uniqueness was thrown into doubt.
The idea of man's ape origins proved both fascinating and deeply troubling to Darwin's contemporaries. In many museums, human and gorilla skeletons were directly compared. Depictions of gorillas sometimes demonised them as symbols of the cruelty and sensuality of human nature. But in other works of art, apes themselves took on human qualities, and seemed to meditate on their kinship with mankind.
Transformismes (Les Darwiniques), no. 1, c. 1879
The Belgian painter and illustrator Félicien Rops was well versed in the sciences, and certainly familiar with Darwin's theories. He produced this series of three etchings around 1879, inspired, he said, by 'an old volume ... by one very savant clerk of the country of Grande Britain called Darwin'; it made, he added, 'a horrific dream'. Precisely what Rops had read of Darwin remains unclear. The explicit sexual element in these etchings suggests that he knew Darwin's theory of sexual selection, but they are also an imaginative response to wider ideas about transformism and evolution.
The series shows intimate 'love antics' (Darwin's term) between ever-more evolved creatures. In this, the first, and lowest, life-form, a fishlike creature gives the woman what Rops described as a 'strange kiss'.
Musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur
Gorilla (Troglodytes gorilla (Sav.) from Gabon) Abducting a Woman, 1887
Emmanuel Frémiet was a draughtsman and preparatory at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris from the 1840s. As such he was one of the first to inspect at close hand the skull and skeleton of a gorilla-an ape previously unknown in the Western world-when it was delivered to the Museum in 1849. Two years later, in 1851, the museum became the focus of gorilla studies throughout Europe, when the first two whole gorilla bodies, preserved in alcohol, arrived from Gabon. At the same time, traveller's tales demonizing the gorilla, notably those of the American explorer Paul Du Chaillu, fed the public's imagination-and its fears.
Frémiet's first sculpture on this theme (1859) had been rejected by the Salon exhibition jury on the grounds that it offended public decency. This later reworking of the subject was prompted by the intervening 'gorilla wars'-the disputes over the closeness of the gorilla's relationship to man-and evolutionary debates stimulated by the publications of Darwin and Thomas Huxley. Frémiet's King-Kong-like group contrasts sharply with Darwin's view of anthropoid apes as man's closest surviving kin, sharing his capacity for rational thought and kindness.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon