Allegorizing extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the valedictory image

Thomas, Sarah (2015) Allegorizing extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the valedictory image. In: Brauer, Fae, (ed.) Picturing Evolution and Extinction. Newcastle, U.K. : Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 9781443872539


In the first half of the nineteenth century the writings of the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt began to propel European artists to travel to all corners of the globe. Humboldt would also inspire another young traveller, Charles Darwin, whose revolutionary theory of evolution would come to overturn the concept of a divine universal order devised by his mentor. This essay focuses on a group of mid-nineteenth-century paintings poised between the Humboldtian and Darwinian world views which allegorised the extinction of indigenous peoples, those by the itinerant Germanic artists Eugene von Guérard in Australia, and Albert Bierstadt in North America. Elegiac and melancholic, the paintings represented their indigenous subjects in deep shadow, set against the dying light of sunset: their foreboding message was one of inexorable decline. As such they actively participated in the pervasive - and profoundly flawed - extinction discourse which throughout the nineteenth century held that all 'savage' races were doomed ineluctably to perish. I argue that the paintings engaged in what James Clifford has termed 'salvage ethnography', yet ultimately - if unwittingly - their message contributed to the unparalleled global decimation of indigenous peoples which scarred the imperial age.

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