Extraordinary images by Ernst Haeckel

by Ann Sylph on

These wonderful and extraordinary images are by Ernst Haeckel.

This blog is based on a talk I gave at the The Deep in Hull during September for their exhibition of Ernst Haeckel’s stunning images, this exhibit continues until the end of October. The exhibition is part of The Deep’s celebration of Hull’s year as City of Culture. As far as we know this is the first time they have been exhibited in the UK since his death in 1919.

Decorative and colourful illustrations of jellyfish with tentacles draped across the page
Plate 8 in Haeckel's Artforms from nature depicting Discomedusae

In this short introduction I can only give you a brief outline to Haeckel’s life. His images are astonishing, beautiful and scientifically accurate. Since their publication in Kunstform der Natur – Artforms in Nature between 1899  and 1904, they have inspired so many artists, designers and architects. Both science and art are so vital to human culture and Haeckel links the two. His images are appropriate for exhibition at The Deep as he worked for many years as a marine biologist.

Haeckel was a devoted scientist and talented artist. His amazing works are still so fresh and relevant, they are studied today by art students in schools and colleges for both GCSE and A-level.

As a former ecology student myself, I also find it inspiring that he coined the word 'ecology'  for the science studying interactions of organisms and their environment.

Colourful illustration of  sea anemones
Actiniae Plate 49 in Haeckel's Artforms in Nature

Who was Ernst Haeckel?

  • He was born in Potsdam in 1834, following his father’s wishes he enrolled in medical school, however he did not practice as a doctor for long but devoted himself to zoology and art.
  • In 1857 he earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the tissue of river crabs.
  • In Sicily he studied marine organisms, finding, describing and illustrating many new species of Radiolaria, single celled marine organisms.
  • He was a Professor of Zoology in Jena.
  • Following the publication of Darwin’s On origin of species he became a strong defender of Darwinism and this influenced his own work. His own published works on Darwinism were translated into many languages and it is though that more people learned about evolutionary theory from Haeckel than from Darwin!
  • He studied some of the animal groups collected on the British deep-sea Challenger Expedition (1872-76)
  • He died in 1919 at his  home, `Villa Medusa’

Artforms in Nature revealed the beauty of so many organisms including many only visible using a microscope. His work particularly influenced the blossoming Art Nouveau movement. The images are beautiful, the animals arranged with symmetry on the page and highly decorative manner.

Are the images 'art'? As an ecologist turned information specialist I do not feel qualified to judge. As his work is studied by art students I am going to say that his works can be regarded as 'art'. Decide for yourself by enjoying these amazing images, be inspired by the range of animals depicted and do support conservation to ensure these and other animals have a future.

Decorative print of several species of octopus
Gamochonia Plate 54 in Haeckel's Artforms in Nature

Another biologist interested in forms and patterns was the Scottish biologist, mathematician, classics scholar and a Fellow of ZSL - D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948). 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of his book which influenced generations of biologists - On growth and form which was first published in 1917. In the book he explains how biological forms follow mathematical and physical principles. Read more on the website celebrating this centenary.

The ZSL Library is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inform, enthuse and inspire! And of course information is vitally important in conservation.

Our collections can be explored and discovered in a variety of ways –

Colourful illustration of diverse froms of tunicates
Ascidiae Plate 85 in Haeckel's Artforms in Nature (tunicates)

Some further reading – all these books are in ZSL Library

Art forms in nature : the prints of Ernst Haeckel, Munich : Prestel, 2017

Art forms from the ocean : the Radiolarian Atlas of 1862, Munich : Prestel, 2016

The invention of nature : the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science / Andrea Wulf, London : John Murray, 2015. (Contains a chapter about Humboldt’s influence on Haeckel.)

Kunstformen der Natur / von Ernst Haeckel, Leipzig und Wien: Verlag des Bibliographischen, 1899-1904

On growth and form, by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Cambridge : CUP, 1917

Die Radiolarien (Rhizopoda Radiaria) : eine Monographie / von Ernst Haeckel, Berlin : Georg Reimer, 1862-1888

Colourful illustration of marine invertebrates of the Siphonophorae
Siphonophorae Plate 17 in Haeckel's Artforms in Nature



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