skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

2.27 William Couper bust, New York

< Back to Introduction

In 1909 the centenary of Darwin’s birth and the fifty years anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species coincided. In recognition of this historic milestone, a grand celebration and international colloquium took place in Cambridge. Across the United States, too, there were large gatherings of scientists intent on appraisal of Darwin’s legacy after half a century of research based on his theories. The New York Academy of Sciences had, since the early 1890s, taken a leading role in promoting the progress of science and scientific education in the city, in close collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History, and in 1908 the Academy decided to commemorate the forthcoming Darwin centenary by giving a bronze bust of him to the Museum. The bust was commissioned from William Couper, costing $3000, and it was presented by the President of the New York Academy, Charles Finney Cox, to the President of the Trustees of the Museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, at an unveiling ceremony on Darwin’s birthday, 12 February 1909, attended by some three hundred people. Both Presidents involved in the enterprise were keen Darwinians. Arthur Shipley of Christ’s College Cambridge sent a cablegram on the occasion, with greetings from the zoologists gathered for a commemorative dinner in Darwin’s old rooms at the College.   

The presentation of the bust was accompanied by an exhibition at the Museum, illustrating Darwin’s life and his theory of evolution through natural selection. It included ‘letters, writings, and portraits’ of Darwin, of which Cox had acquired a large and important collection. He subsequently gave part of this collection of ‘Darwiniana’, including some of the portraits, to the New York Academy of Sciences, but the rest was bought after his death by the New York Botanical Garden. Osborn gave a series of laudatory lectures on Darwin at Columbia University, and recalled with emotion a fleeting personal encounter with him in 1879. It was Osborn who subsequently gained the permission of the New York Academy of Sciences to order a replica of Couper’s bust for presentation to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and he led the American delegation to the Darwin centenary celebration there in June 1909. 

Couper had spent many formative years in Florence, and since c.1897 had built up a successful practice as a portrait sculptor in New York. However, the commission for the bust of Darwin posed many problems. It was to be twice life size, and, since Couper had never met Darwin, he was necessarily dependent on photographs and earlier sculptures of him for this monumental work. During 1908 Cox sought advice on Couper’s behalf from Darwin’s sons. Francis Darwin advised against using Woolner’s bust as a model, as the family had never liked it. He preferred the bust by Christian Lehr of c.1883, which he knew from a photograph; but no one seemed to know where the actual bust was. Thus Couper had to rely largely on photographs of Darwin in Cox’s collection, showing his appearance in the later 1860s and 1870s. Francis Darwin, to whom Cox sent a photograph of Couper’s clay model, found fault with the proportions, while acknowledging that the portrayal had ‘dignity and unity’. Osborn, on receiving the finished work, was more fulsome: it was ‘a noble work of art’ which conveyed the ‘far-seeing vision’ of Darwin’s ‘deep-set eyes, controlled by a great brain in which the powers of observation and of reason were developed far beyond the average . . . a singularly grand and impressive likeness’. The bust stood on a high tapered pedestal of polished red granite. To this a bronze plaque was attached, bearing an inscription: ‘PRESENTED BY THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES ON THE ONE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF DARWIN AND THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE PUBLICATION OF THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES. 1809 1859 1909’. 

The installation of the bust in the American Museum of Natural History related closely to the museum’s wider scientific and educational mission, as conceived by the Director, Hermon Carey Bumpus. It stood at the entrance to a hall which was appropriately renamed the Darwin Hall of Invertebrate Zoology. The Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum was the Harvard Professor William Morton Wheeler, an entomologist, whose lecture ‘Predarwinian and postdarwinian biology’, delivered at Boston on Darwin’s birthday in 1909, was an especially interesting analysis. The displays in the Museum were redesigned to illustrate Darwinian theories on aspects of natural selection, for the enlightenment of the lay public. As in the Natural History Museum in London a quarter of a century earlier, a commanding portrait of Darwin and promulgation of his ideas at the popular level were intimately linked, reflecting a sense of his unique importance in the history of the natural sciences. In Cox’s address on ‘The individuality of Charles Darwin’ and many of the other addresses on 12 February, Darwin’s ‘solitariness’ – his rejection of received ideas and his reliance on his own genius as a student of the natural world – was constantly stressed.  

Given the fanfare and the welter of lectures and exhibits that accompanied the donation of the bust in 1909, it is ironic that later organisational changes at the Museum led to a decision in 1960 to return it to the New York Academy of Natural Sciences; it is now displayed in the Academy’s offices. However, the original granite pedestal had already been disposed of in 1958, and the bust now stands on a modern base. 

  • physical location New York Academy of Sciences, New York City 

  • accession or collection number none 

  • copyright holder New York Academy of Sciences 

  • originator of image William Couper 

  • date of creation 1908–1909 

  • computer-readable date 1908-01-01 to 1909-01-31 

  • medium and material bronze bust 

  • references and bibliography Information kindly provided by Dr Douglas Braaten of the New York Academy of Sciences. New York Academy of Sciences, Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’, printed announcement of the intended celebration and gift of the bust, inviting subscriptions; it is signed by the Secretary, Edmund Otis Hovey, and dated 31 October 1908. Special Darwin issue, The Popular Science Monthly (April 1909), pp. 315f. ‘The Darwin celebration’, The American Museum Journal (March 1909). Edmund Otis Hovey, ‘Darwin memorial celebration’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 19:1, part 1 (31 July 1909), pp. 1–40. Janet Browne, ‘Looking at Darwin: portraits and the making of an icon’, Isis, 100:3 (Sept. 2009), pp. 542–570 (pp. 553–4). ‘Issues, “Archives”’, Issues in Science and Technology, 25:4 (Summer 2009). Sidney Horenstein, ‘Darwin’s busts and public evolutionary outreach and education’, Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4 (9 July 2011), pp. 478–488. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 119. 


In this section: