The nineteenth century saw an unprecedented development in the natural sciences. The great voyages of exploration revealed the diversity of the world and the variety of living species; geology discovered the unimaginably great age of the Earth and its transformations over time; the study of fossils revealed the ancient beginnings of life and the existence of now-extinct species. In 1854, the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace in London presented a Jurassic Park ahead of its time. The discovery of prehistoric man raised the question: how should he be depicted? Who was the first artist?
In the second half of the century, Darwin and his followers, like Haeckel in Germany, examined the origins of man, his place in Nature, his links with animals and his own animal nature, in a world that was understood from then on as an ecosystem. This upheaval in the sciences, and the public debates throughout the century, had a profound influence on artists. The iconography of the monkey reflected the discomfort when faced with our simian ancestors, and the phantasmatic quest for the “missing link”.
The Symbolist aesthetic of metamorphosis was populated with monsters and hybrids, centaurs, minotaurs, sirens and other chimera. With Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, Nature became the artist. The infinitely small world, botany and the ocean depths inspired the arts, the decorative arts in particular. Art Nouveau and Symbolism displayed a fascination for the origins of life, ontogeny and phylogeny: single-cell forms, marine animals and embryonic creatures crept into undefined realms, into the secrets of maternity.
For the first time, the musée d’Orsay is devoting an exhibition to the point where sciences and arts intersect, in partnership with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, which will cover the themes in question and compare the principal milestones in scientific discoveries with their parallels in the imagination.