Protoplasm, Art and Death: The Origin of Life and G. F. Watts

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Posted 13th February 2019

Protoplasm, Art and Death: The Origin of Life and G. F. Watts

Bryony Swain

The work of Charles Darwin and other evolutionists, such as Thomas Huxley, challenged certain fundamental aspects of Christian doctrine and religious belief. The most prominent debates in the 1860s and 1870s, stemming from work such as Huxley's on protoplasm, centred on questions regarding the origin of life. On one side were vitalists like Lionel Beale, who believed that a vital entity, such as God, gave life; on the other were mechanists, who argued that there were material explanations for the origin of life, which engaged with theories of spontaneous generation. This debate included discussions on the difference between living and dead cells. Huxley argued that there was only a gradation between life and non-life. He had supposed that upon death living matter reverts to its mineral elements and that these can recombine to make fresh life, implying that death is not an end but part of a continuous cycle of life and death. This had implications for the Christian belief in life after death. In this essay I intend to show that the work by G.F. Watts, including The All Pervading (1887-90, Tate) and Death Crowning Innocence (1886-7, Tate), was responding to religious doubt over the origin of life, and subsequent debates on life after death, which arose from these contemporary scientific debates.

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