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Darwin Correspondence Project

1.17 Alphonse Legros drawing

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Alphonse Legros’s drawing of Darwin in the Fitzwilliam Museum is one of three likenesses of him by this artist in different media, the others being a drypoint engraving and a medallion. Only the medallion is dateable, to 1881: the drawing and the print may have been done at the same period, or subsequently, as posthumous portrayals of Darwin. According to Timothy Wilcox, Legros in his later years made ‘dozens of etchings and a series of exquisite portrait heads in metal point’. In fact, the Fitzwilliam Museum possesses also a portrait drawing by Legros of Hector Berlioz (clearly based on a photograph), which is almost the same dimensions as the drawing of Darwin, in the same medium, and identically signed at top right. Furthermore, they both came from the same collection – that of Charles Julius Knowles, a friend of the artist and collector of his works; Knowles’s death in 1900 limits the possible date span for the drawings to 1880s–1890s. Perhaps they belonged to a set depicting men who were, in Legros’s or Knowles’s estimation, the leading creative spirits of nineteenth-century Europe. At the same time, the choice of metal point as a medium harks back to the Renaissance, in a fusion of archaism and modernity that was typical of this artist.  

It is known that Legros saw Darwin at a public gathering on at least one occasion, but there is no record of his being admitted to Down for a portrait sitting. In fact, the likeliest source for the drawing and the engraving, which are closely related, is one of Elliott and Fry’s photographs of Darwin taken c.1880–1.  Legros characteristically reworked the photographic image, and this drawing of Darwin is particularly idealised. Darwin’s shadowed eyes are far-seeing, his nose is straightened and refined, and his beard falls in soft rhythmic waves. The effect is strongly reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s chalk drawing of an old man at Turin, a presumed self-portrait, thus associating Darwin with another ‘universal’ man, revered sage and questing natural scientist. Indeed, a portrait of Leonardo hung on the wall of Darwin’s study at Down for inspiration, along with those of Erasmus Darwin, Hooker and Lyell. As Elizabeth Prettejohn has shown, allusions to Renaissance art are highly characteristic of Legros, often reworked in terms of nineteenth-century realism. Characteristic also is the violent contrast in mood between this idealised drawing and the turbulent image of Darwin embodied in Legros’s medal. This artist often wrought dramatic changes in successive stages of his work on a particular a motif, or in transmutations from one medium to another. 

A pencil copy of Legros’s drawing of Darwin signed by Henri-Léopold Lévy was sold at Sotheby’s on 11 July 2017 (lot 339).  

  • physical location Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 

  • accession or collection number PD.44-1959 

  • copyright holder Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 

  • originator of image Alphonse Legros (signed at top right ‘A. Legros’). 

  • date of creation undated, 1880s–1890s 

  • computer-readable date undated, 1880-01-01 to 1899 -12-31 

  • medium and material goldpoint heightened with touches of white on pink prepared paper  

  • references and bibliography Fitzwilliam Museum catalogue record. Timothy Wilcox, article on Legros in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Elizabeth Prettejohn, ‘The scandal of M. Alphonse Legros’, Art History, 44:1 (Feb. 2021), pp. 78–107. This drawing is included in Bridgeman Images (XLE 3776690) with a reference to Bernhard Fehr, Englische Literatur des XIX–XX Jahrhunderts 1923, p. 166.  

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