Bibliography Texts

Portraits in the Round:
Busts of Charles Darwin

John Woram

This summary of details about several busts of Charles Darwin was prepared from material gathered while researching background information on the Darwin Monument on Isla San Cristóbal.

See Victor Wolfgang von Hagen's Ecuador the Unknown for more details about the Darwin Monument on Isla San Cristóbal.

Unless otherwise noted, footnotes refer to documents and images in the American Museum of Natural History Archives.

New York, February 12th, 1909—Almost a century ago, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 50th anniversary of his Origin of Species, the American Museum of Natural History inaugurated its new Darwin Hall of Invertebrate Zoology. Before the event, the New York Academy of Sciences had awarded the prominent American sculptor William Couper (1853-1942) a $1,000 commission† to create a bronze bust of Darwin.‡ The bust—a gift to the Museum from the Academy—was unveiled on that day and placed in the Hall. In the March, 1909 issue of The American Museum Journal, “The Darwin Celebration” feature informed its readers that “The bust is pronounced by those who knew Darwin personally, and by his sons in England, who have seen photographs of the clay model, the best portrait in the round of the great naturalist ever made.” The Journal noted that Couper based his work on “… photographs taken when Darwin was fifty years old, at the time of the publication of ‘The Origin of Species.’ ” However, photographs of Darwin at age 54 and 66 suggest that Couper worked from photographs taken when Darwin was a bit older than 50.

† Undated note.

‡ Images #32287 & #5296.

Darwin Hall was dismantled in 1940 and the bust went into storage until 1960, when the Museum disposed of some of its holdings. The gift was returned to the New York Academy of Sciences, and the bust now resides in a small outdoor courtyard at Academy headquarters.

A Darwin Bust goes to Cambridge

Shortly after the inauguration of Darwin Hall, the Museum considered presenting a replica of the bust to Cambridge University and the Academy of Sciences had no objections, stating that “ … the Darwin bust is now the property of the Museum, and the Museum is at liberty to do what it deems best about allowing, or procuring, replicas to be made.†” Accordingly, Couper made a second bust for the Museum, and an American delegation presented it to Christ's College in Cambridge, England, during “The Darwin Centenary” festival held at that institution later in the same year. A June 23rd, 1909 newspaper‡ offered the following report:

† Undated note.

‡ The cited newspaper article was bound into a volume of Darwin letters, but the paper itself is not identified.

An American Presentation

At the conclusion of the ceremony of presentation of the delegates, Professor Osborn (New York) addressed the gathering. He assured it of the great privilege the delegates from the United States felt it to be of uniting in the celebration of Darwin's birth. … Concluding with a panegyric upon Darwin, he said they desired to present to Christ's College, as a memorial of their visit, a portrait of Charles Darwin in bronze, the work of their countryman, William Couper, a portrait which they trusted would convey to this and future generations of Cambridge students some impression of the rugged simplicity as well as of the intellectual grandeur of the man they revered and honoured.†

† The Christ's College Council does not permit their Darwin bust to be displayed on this website. However, the bust may be seen on the college's own website at

Two months later, Dr. Osborn wrote to William Couper to tell him about the event:

I have been intending to write you regarding the Darwin bronze, which was very gratefully accepted by the authorities of Christ's College. Unfortunately, it was exhibited in a very small room with other memorabilia of life size, and its heroic size threw it somewhat out of proportion. Sir George Darwin said that he regarded it as a very good likeness. Professor Francis Darwin was rather reserved in his opinion. The general opinion seemed to be that it ranked with the best of the portrait busts of Darwin. The occasion, however, was such a hurried one, and there were so many events crowding in upon each other, that I await more mature judgment, which I am quite sure will be very favorable.†

† Osborn to Couper, August 30, 1909.

Couper took the professor's reservations in good humor, replying to Osborn that “I am in hopes that as soon as Prof. Francis Darwin becomes used to seeing his father's head so large, he will feel differently about it.†”

† Couper to Osborn, September 2, 1909.

A Darwin Bust in Galápagos

Another centenary was the occasion for another unveiling. In January, 1934, anthropologist Victor Wolfgang von Hagen described his plans for a “Darwin Memorial Expedition” to Drs. Henry Fairfield Osborn and Roy Chapman Andrews at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.† Dr. von Hagen wanted to erect a monument on Isla San Cristóbal on September 17th, 1935, to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Darwin's visit to the island, his first stop in Galápagos. He had already arranged for a bronze plaque with an inscription written by Darwin's son, Major Leonard Darwin, and had also written to Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy at the Museum to see if it would be possible to get a plaster cast of Couper's bronze bust.

† von Hagen to Andrews, February 4, 1935.

The Museum made the necessary arrangements a few months later, and sent the bronze bust to the Brooklyn foundry of E. Gargani & Sons, where two plaster casts were made. On May 9th, the bust was returned to the museum, along with the casts. One of these was sent to von Hagen, for which he was billed $60 (plus shipping).† The cast was shipped to Guayaquil and from there von Hagen had it sent up to Quito, where Luis Mideros, Director of la Escuela de Bella Artes in Quito, used it to create a new bust of poured concrete. Bronze filings were mixed into the concrete in the hope that this would give the bust a bronze-like patina.

† Andrews to von Hagen, March 13, 1935.

The Galápagos Darwin Monument is now on the grounds of an Ecuadorian Naval Base, so it is not readily accessible to tourists.

A Duplicate Bust in Quito

In Quito, there is a Darwin bust at Universidad Central del Ecuador † identical to the one on Isla San Cristóbal. The text on the plaque below the bust is essentially the same as at San Cristóbal, but is written in Spanish.

So far, no explanation has been found to account for why von Hagen has not mentioned the circumstances surrounding this bust, nor how it came to be placed at the university. In fact, about the only acknowledgments of its existence are the following letters:

† Darwin bust photos, von Hagen letter and information about Alfredo Palacio (Guayaquil, below) courtesy Ana Mireya Guerrero, Universidad Central del Ecuador, Quito.

‡ Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen Papers (MS 1183, Box 1, Folder 4). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

In accordance with von Hagen's request in his letter to Dr Guzmán, a ceremony was held on September 17, 1935 at the university, where Vice-Rector Dr. Manuel Garcia addressed the audience which included the sculptor Luis Mideros and other community and academic leaders.

Given von Hagen's reference to monuments (note plural), it's possible that the second plaster cast was also delivered to Mideros, if it were known in advance that the first cast would be destroyed after the concrete had been poured into it and set. Another possibility is that Mideros was able to create two busts from the same cast, and the museum simply ordered a second cast in case it might be needed in the future. But in the absence of any known documentation relating to the second plaster cast, we can only speculate on its actual fate.

And yet Another Bust at the Museum

Another Darwin bust at the Museum of Natural History has sometimes been confused with Couper's work in bronze. It is, however, a painted plaster bust created in 1973 by Helmut Karl Wimmer. At that time, Museum Director Dr. Thomas D. Nicholson was not aware of the location of Couper's earlier work, although he speculated—correctly—that it might have been returned to the New York Academy of Sciences. But since it was no longer at the Museum, Nicholson commissioned the plaster bust, to be displayed in connection with an upcoming Darwin birthday event (details unknown).† This bust is now in the Museum's Special Collections Library.

† Nicholson to Root, October 14, 1988.

And replicas Elsewhere …

Guayaquil: In addition to the above-mentioned Darwin Monument on Isla San Cristóbal, Dr. von Hagen arranged for a another Darwin bust to be displayed at the University of Guayaquil campus at Calle Chile & Chiriboga. This bust was created by the sculptor Alfredo Palacio, father of Ecuadorian President (2005-2007) Alfredo Palacio. A comparison of the busts at Isla San Cristóbal (left) and Guayaquil (right) suggests that Señor Palacio used some other source as his reference. For reasons unknown, von Hagen offers no explanation about any of this, nor does he identify the Guayaquil sculptor by name.

Down House: In ca. 1990, there was a Darwin bust on the rear porch of his home at Down House on Luxted Road in the village of Downe. The bust appears to be a replica of the Couper bust. It was removed from the porch several years ago, and its present location is unknown.

Progresso, Isla San Cristóbal: And finally, a school (Escuela Carlos Darwin) in the village of Progreso has placed its own Darwin bust in the school's courtyard.