The Art That Made Darwin Famous

Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century artist and biologist, popularized Charles Darwin's work by creating stunning artistic records of life on Earth. Here's a look at some of Haeckel's prints, which are featured in the book "The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel."

By Reiner Williams
Dec 13, 2017 5:00 PMApr 18, 2020 9:50 PM


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Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Cnidarians and Siphonophores Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 17

Haeckel (1834-1919) was a scientist, philosopher, physician, professor. He coined many words in biology that we still use today, such as ecology, phylum and stem cell. Haeckel was outstanding as a scientific artist. Instead of drawing just a front view, he also illustrated the other side if visible through gaps and holes in the skeletons. The result was a 3D picture — rarely seen until then. Also, many of the life forms he drew were completely unknown to the public.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Atlas of Calcareous Sponges, 1872, plate 6

No other scientist had the capacity to make such beautiful works of art while also depicting organisms very accurately. Many of Haeckel’s contemporaries thought that he went too far with his stylistic flair, but he knew all too well that a wide audience must be reached to get support for the natural sciences and the idea of evolution. To combine scientific accuracy with the presentation of natural beauty reflects his philosophy — that everything in the universe coheres.

Photo Credits: Ernst Hackel

Monograph on the Medusae, vol 1, 1879, plate 1

Haeckel showed many of his jellyfish and siphonophorae as if they were in water, unfolding their arms and finest tentacles, like floating hair. He put much effort into arranging his plates in an attractive way with respect to their general structure and size. But the objects Haeckel examined are, in themselves, of outstanding beauty. Is there anything more beautiful than nature? Put all these things together and you get a genuine “Haeckel”. This is what makes his work unique.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Monograph on the Medusae, vol 2, 1881, plate 1

As a professor, he was beloved by his pupils, many of whom themselves became professors of biology around the world. They always described Haeckel as “a person one can only love”. But he had his enemies as a scientist, particularly in the Catholic church. He once said: “I am forced to react as I do.” He felt what he said and wrote was a reaction to the world. I’m not sure how true that was, but there were two different people in Haeckel, depending on who he was speaking to.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

The Evolution of the Siphonophorae, 1869, plate 3

The first time Haeckel and Charles Darwin met in 1866, Haeckel was 32 and Darwin was 57. Darwin was a bit anxious, as the response to Origin of Species had been lukewarm in Germany, so he invited the biologist and his “bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley as a third wheel — if there was some kind of confrontation, he could defuse it.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Cnidarians, from Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 8

But Darwin said he never met such a cordial, open-minded person as Haeckel and wrote this in several letters to friends. Darwin’s wife was enthusiastic about Haeckel too — his English was far from flawless and he sometimes used the wrong words, so they had a lot of fun.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Report on the Siphonophorae collected by H.M.S. Challenger, 1888, plate 50

When Darwin lost his eldest daughter Annie in 1851, he felt there could not be anything like a God [in the world]. And this caused a lot of trouble between him and his wife Emma, who was a strong believer. Haeckel lost his wife at the age of 29. He had had his doubts already, but that was the final step for him to say that there was no God – and if there was, it must be nature in its entirety.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Radiolarians, from Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 71

In Art Forms of Nature, he re-illustrated some of the microscopic objects he had seen 20 to 30 years previously, but here he showed them on a black background. This one, of protozoa, is among my favorites, because they show what Haeckel was able to do.

Photo Credits: Ernst Haeckel

Fungi - Club fungi, from Art Forms in Nature, 1899–1904, plate 63

Haeckel never put something into any of his drawings that he had not seen. They are so accurate that some of his drawings are still used in textbooks today. You can buy the book for $200 here.

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