Illustration by Helen Ziska, 1928.

Helen Ziska: The Unknown Artist Who Kept the March of Progress Image Alive

Gowan Dawson—

The march of progress image shows a series of ape-like creatures that become progressively taller and more erect before reaching the upright human form. It is one of the most familiar and incessantly replicated pictures in the world.  It has even defined, albeit misleadingly, how evolution is understood and, ultimately, how humans conceive their relation to the natural world.  The two most famous versions of this particular image are the frontispiece of Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), and “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” a foldout illustration in the best-selling book Early Man (1965). Created a century apart, they both culminate with a human who is identifiably male: a skeleton in Huxley’s frontispiece, and a decidedly modern man, complete with neatly-trimmed beard and gym-honed abs, in “The Road to Homo Sapiens.” Both images have been criticized, with good reason, for perpetuating an iconographic tradition, prevalent since at least the mid-eighteenth century, in which masculine characteristics are equated with biological development and evolutionary progress.

The frontispiece to Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and “The Road to Homo Sapiens” were both created by male artists, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Rudolph Zallinger, respectively.  Yet without a woman artist, who is now almost completely unknown, the former image may well have been forgotten, and the latter might not have come to be made at all.

Between Hawkins’s skeletal drawings for Man’s Place in Nature and Zallinger’s “Road to Homo Sapiens,” depictions of evolution as a gradual ascent from apes to humans were challenged and fell out of favor.  This was particularly the case in the 1920s, when Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, sought to banish any imagery that suggested humans shared their ancestry with apes.  This offended his patrician sensibilities, and he was diagnosed, only half-jokingly, as suffering from “pithecophobia,” a pathological dread of apes as ancestors.  Within Osborn’s own museum, however, a lowly staff artist named Helen Ziska was creating drawings of evolutionary development that deliberately echoed the ascending primate skeletons in Man’s Place in Nature’s frontispiece. 

Ziska’s drawings were made for the primatologist William King Gregory, whose motto was “Back to Huxley,” but she imbued them with a dark sardonic humor that seemed to mock Osborn’s insistence on human nobility and his hysterical loathing of apes. At times, Ziska’s ascending images also challenged ideas of racial selection, eugenics, and even fascism, all of which Osborn embraced.  Despite both Osborn’s distaste and the financial constraints created by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, Ziska was able to transform her drawings into museum exhibits.  With both her ink drawings and three-dimensional models, she was responsible—pretty much exclusively—for keeping alive the iconographic tradition of a progressive ascent from apes to humans.

Ziska is a fascinating figure in her own right, although it has been necessary to draw on unpublished letters and original drawings, held in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History, to tell her story for the first time. Born in New York in 1880, she was the daughter of a famous opera singer, and inherited a talent for singing with which she regularly regaled her museum colleagues. Ziska’s artistic skills were still more striking, and Gregory, a former protégé of Osborn’s and a powerful figure in the museum, greatly appreciated her abilities, employing her to illustrate both his specialist and popular publications. She was nevertheless overworked, poorly paid, and like many female scientific illustrators before and since, not considered a proper artist. When she retired in the 1940s, Ziska had scarcely enough to live on, and spent her final years in penury.

It was at precisely this time that Ziska, who died in obscurity in 1951, directly inspired the image that would later be published as “The Road to Homo Sapiens.” As a teenager in Texas, Elwyn LaVerne Simons, who would later become one of the world’s leading paleoanthropologists, was captivated by Ziska’s linear drawings of evolutionary ascent, particularly those she had created for Gregory’s book Our Face from Fish to Man (1929). In the mid-1960s, Simons, then based at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, advised Rudolph Zallinger to adopt a similar format for “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” which the artist had been commissioned to draw for the Time-Life publication Early Man. This picture, often referred to as the “march of progress,” has subsequently become one of the most famous and influential images in the modern world. But without Helen Ziska it probably would never have existed.

Gowan Dawson is professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Leicester and honorary research fellow at the Natural History Museum, London. His work combines the history of science with cultural, literary, and art history. He lives in Leicestershire, UK.

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