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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.5 William Beard, comic painting

In June 1872, Darwin’s friend Asa Gray, the Harvard Professor of Botany, sent him a print or photograph of a comic painting by the American artist William Holbrook Beard. Titled The Youthful Darwin Expounding His Theories, it shows a family of monkeys, seemingly in process of evolution into humans. The ‘Darwin’ boy-monkey, who is more anthropomorphic than his parents, excitedly shows them an assortment of animal specimens that he has collected, notably a large amphibian. Laid side by side, these creatures supposedly display an evolutionary progression. His monkey parents respond to this display with agitation or scepticism. Beard specialised in such imaginary scenes, where animals impersonate humans. They often resemble the comic taxidermy of the period, but are spiced with provocative allusions to contemporary science or politics. In the Discovery of Adam of 1891, a group of anthropomorphised monkeys, dressed and equipped to look like scientific pedants, have seemingly been carried back to the primeval world, and scrutinise, with dismay, a primitive reptile which is their own supposed ancestor. 

Asa Gray called Beard’s Youthful Darwin a ‘clever thing’, and Professor Ogden N. Rood of Columbia University, from whom Gray had received a print of it, remarked, ‘We in New York enjoyed it very much.’ Indeed, a photograph of the picture was apparently exhibited at the Century Association in June 1871, and it was reproduced by the American Photoplate Printing Company; the original painting was later acquired by the American Museum of Natural History. Beard had assured Rood, ‘it was executed in a purely neutral spirit, and without any intention of casting ridicule – on either side.’ Rood added ‘Beard is a very talented fellow, and would no doubt be delighted by a line from you [Gray], though he don’t expect it.’ When Darwin received his copy of the print (now lost) from Gray, he was seemingly less enthusiastic. ‘I forgot to thank you for engraving of the ape-man, which I am glad to possess, though I am surprised it was thought worth painting & engraving.’ In Britain, monkey dramas had characterised the first phase of satire reactive to Origin of Species in the 1860s, and by 1872 the joke must have seemed rather stale.  

  • physical location American Museum of Natural History, New York 

  • accession or collection number unknown 

  • copyright holder American Museum of Natural History 

  • originator of image William Holbrook Beard 

  • date of creation 1871 

  • computer-readable date 1871-01-01 to 1871-05-31 

  • medium and material oil painting, which was photographed and engraved 

  • references and bibliography Asa Gray’s letter to Darwin, enclosing one from Rood to himself, 11 June 1872 (DCP-LETT-8381); Darwin’s reply to Gray, 8 July [1872] (DCP-LETT-8402). S.G.W. Benjamin, ‘An American humorist in paint. William H. Beard, N.A.’, Magazine of Art, 5 (1882), pp. 14-19. Glenn Branch, ‘In search of a Beard’, dated from the National Center for Science Education, 19 Sept. 2013, online at https://ncse.ngo/search-beard, accessed April 2021. J. van Wyhe, ‘Iconography’, p. 185. 


  

 

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