Evolution in Art

Young Spartans, 1860- Edgar Degas

“If the classical body is a representation of man’s baseness, then the evolutionary body is a return of that which has been repressed. And if the classical nude represents pure form, intellect, rationality… … then the evolutionary body figures the subject as hopelessly bound to his corporeality “ - Martha Lucy – Reading the Animal in Degas’s Young Spartans [1].

What a difference a few centuries makes in the Western art world. Up through the Baroque period, artists were experimenting with ways to portray the human form, whether lofty and noble, mortal and liminal, or debased and low down. Even with all these varied ways of showing the levels of humanity, there was usually a respectful acknowledgment, or at least nod, to the church and religion. Then along came Darwin and his The Origin of the Species positing the theory of evolution. Artists, academics, and other influential groups starting to represent scientific principles that were contrary to church dogma.

In Edgar Degas’s painting, Young Spartans, there are three groups of people. In foreground left, a group of bare breasted women tauntingly and challengingly face toward a group of men. On the right side a group of nude young men face toward the women, sizing up their potential adversaries/mates and stretching as if readying for competition or a fight. Between the two groups stand clothed characters in the background, observing the upcoming competition/courtship.

In Lucy’s article, the author proposes the characters on both sides, but especially the young males represent Degas’ intentional use of evolutionary theory to mock the historic classical artistic values honoring the perfection of the human physique. The group of men is shown in all different poses that could represent the major steps of evolution, from crawling on all fours to a limber, classical body.

While writing about this, Lucy uses multiple times the term “atavistic” which comes term “atavism”. Atavism is “tendency to revert to ancestral type.”[2] This “tendency” to show traits of our ancestors is evident in the development of the human fetus. The developing fetus will grow through stages where it has a tail, has similar structures to non-vertebrates and then lower vertebrates until it becomes a recognizable human form. The atavistic growth is evident in Degas’ rendering of the men going from ground crawlers to upright males. This willingness of purposefully including evolutionary elements into the artwork is not a subtle subversive message aimed at religion, but an obvious attack on the principles that humans are stationary beings near to perfection and modeled after God. Instead of using a religious theme to promote the propaganda of the church, Degas is potentially using his painting to promote the ideas of science and evolution. This anti-church act may have resulted in his death a century or two earlier, but must have been more acceptable as science and its disciplines were being accepted by the academic and higher levels of society and culture during this period of Degas’ art life.

1. "Reading the Animal in Degas's Young Spartans" by Martha Lucy - Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide - a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture.

2. Altavism – Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atavism

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