Satire has long been used by artists as a method of directing attention to relevant social and political issues. Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane , Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove all come to mind. What better way to expose ignorance and injustice than with the biting tongue of humor? Sometimes laughter is the most effective weapon in your arsenal. However, in addition to addressing more serious topics, satire has also been used to poke harmless fun at popular subjects of the day, but sometimes when it’s difficult to determine the artist’s intent behind his work and how he expected it to be received.
William Holbrook Beard was an American painter who produced many humorous depictions of animals engaged in human activities. This past fall, in addition to seeing his Bulls and Bears in the Market in the Luce Conservation Center at the New York Historical Society, I also stumbled upon his Discovery of Adam at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Adam, which obviously makes reference to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was painted only 32 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s most controversial work, and the idea of Evolution remains a hot button topic even today. Beard’s painting is undoubtedly lampooning the notion that man descended from apes by showing a group of well-dressed primates inquisitively poking at a strange tortoise-like creature. Knowing nothing as to what might’ve been Beard’s personal opinion on Origin of the Species, I find myself wondering if he meant Adam as a serious condemnation of Darwin's theory or if he was just putting an amusing spin on the subject. We tend to think of artists as taking the more liberal standpoint in their work, but we know that is not always the case.
Also, I love those fighting pterodactyls in the background.