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The Creative Power of The World: Ruskinian Beauty versus Darwinian Aesthetics in Venus Verticordia

The Creative Power of The World: Ruskinian Beauty versus Darwinian Aesthetics in Venus Verticordia

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Published by Katie Faulkner
Paper given at the Association of Art Historians (AAH) Postgraduate Symposium, University of York, November 2009
Paper given at the Association of Art Historians (AAH) Postgraduate Symposium, University of York, November 2009

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Katie Faulkner on Dec 17, 2010
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03/28/2013

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Katie Faulkner, Courtauld Institute of Art
AHH New Voices Conference, York – 7
th
November 2009
Just in case it has somehow escaped your attention, 2009 is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150
th
anniversary of the publication of 
On the Origin of Species,
on the 24
th
of November
.
This year has seen a several exhibitions, conferencesand publications about Darwin’s impact on the visual arts, not to mention the opening of the new Darwin Centre building at the Natural History Museum and Origin, a newDarwin biopic starring Paul Bettany. Currently it seems impossible to escape from thethemes of evolution and natural selection, but it is only recently that art historians havebegun to make connections have been made between Darwin and Darwinism andVictorian visual culture. It should be noted that the study of Darwin’s influence in thefield of nineteenth-century English literature, initiated by Gillian Beer’s groundbreakingbook,
 Darwin’s Plots
published in 1983 (a new edition was published this year) is moreestablished. Scholars of British nineteenth-century art, Alison Smith and Colin Troddhave explored the influence of evolutionary theory on the art of G.F. Watts, in particularideas of progress and regression. Gowan Dawson and Jane Munro have explored howDarwinism came to be tainted its by association with the poetry of William Morris,Walter Pater and Algernon Charles Swinburne. So far, the majority of scholars havefocused on the connection between Darwin’s theories on geological time scales and thetheory of natural and sexual selection in animals rather than his botany. As JonathanSmith has shown, however, Darwin’s botanical studies threatened traditionally heldnotions of beauty and sexuality. In particular, John Ruskin felt he and his aesthetic idealswere under attack by Darwin and his followers. This paper will explore the critique1
 
Katie Faulkner, Courtauld Institute of ArtRuskin set up in his botanical writings against Darwin and his popularizers. I will exploreRuskin’s anxieties with Darwin’s botany in relation to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting
Venus Verticordia
, of 1864-8. Rossetti’s art is often characterised as representing desire,but
Venus Verticordia
can particularly be seen as a nexus of Darwinian versus Ruskinianideals of aesthetics and desire.
1
 Plants were the main focus of Darwin’s experiments at Down House between1862 and 1880. Darwin published six major botanical works, which were widelyreviewed and commented on.
2
Darwin’s botanical studies were significant forevolutionary theory in several ways. Firstly, and on a general level, Darwin’s botanybroke down the rigid boundaries between animal and plant life. For example, in his work on plant movement, Darwin equated the responses of plants to stimuli such as light, heator irritants to the very basic reflex actions of animals. Secondly, as I will explain,Darwin’s botanical studies further built the case for natural selection.
3
 Darwin’s observational experiments into the cross and self-fertilisation of plantsformed a central strand of his theory of natural selection. His theories about plantfertilisation date back to Darwin’s first botanical book the
Fertilisation of Orchids
(1862), but he gave the topic a full and detailed explanation in
Cross and Self-Fertilisation of Plants
, published in 1876. This book presented the results of Darwin’s
1
 
Venus Verticordia
was commissioned by J. Mitchell of Bradford in 1863 or 1864. It was never exhibitedin Rossetti’s lifetime although accounts of the painting were published in the
 Athaneum
, 21 October, 1865,456, and in Algernon Swinburne’s
 Notes from the Royal Academy of 1868 (pages!)
. It was first exhibited inBirmingham in 1891 and has been exhibited several times since, most recently in
 Exposed: The Victorian Nude
, 2001 Tate Britain. It is now part of the permanent collection of the Russell Coates Museum inBournemouth.
2
Jonathan Smith,
Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006), 137.
3
Smith, 2006, 140-2.
2
 
Katie Faulkner, Courtauld Institute of Artcomparative experiments on the effects of cross and self-fertilisation in fifty-sevendifferent species of plants. In almost all cases, crossed plants, that is those which werefertilised with pollen from another plant, had ‘an extraordinary advantage in height,weight and fertility, over the self fertilised plants.’ Crossed plants were also endowedwith a ‘greater constitutional vigour’ and survived better when subjected to severecompetition from other species of plants in comparison plants which had self-fertilised.
4
This was due the lack of variety and diversity in the successive generations of self-fertilised plants, which Darwin likens to the abhorrent practice of close relativesmarrying.
5
 Darwin also wrote extensively on the processes of fertilisation. The mostimportant stage was the transportation of pollen from the anthers to the stigma of thesame flower, by insects, before distributing the pollen to the surrounding flowers. Darwinexplained that the plants had evolved to produce large and brightly coloured flowers,which were conspicuous to insects and encouraged them into the nectary, picking uppollen on their way. On the same principle, fruits are coloured to strongly contrast withgreen foliage to be conspicuous to birds, which eat the fruit and disseminate the seeds.
6
 Jonathan Smith points out that Darwin never fully explicated the aestheticramifications of his work on cross-fertilisation and the pollination of flowers by insects.This was left to his popularizers, most notably Grant Allen.
In 1877, Allenpublished his theory of ‘physiological aesthetics’ in a book of the same
4
Charles Darwin,
The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom,
(London: JohnMurray, 1876) 253-6 and 285-291.
5
Darwin
 , On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects and on the good effects of Intercrossing,
(London: John Murray, 1862), 359-60.
6
Darwin, 1876, 371-2.
3

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