Ernst Haeckel discovered thousands of species throughout his life with the help of a microscope.
He immortalised many of them through the art of illustration.
Who's Ernst Haeckel?
Haeckel was a famous 19th century scientist, artist and philosopher. Through his passion for discovery, he found a calling in naturalist study. It inspired him to produce thousands of intricate drawings and illustrate his findings. The legacy of his scientific achievements, philosophic thought and artwork captivates us to this day.
Get a glimpse into his most prominent works. They reveal the journey of this unique historical figure and the wonderful discoveries that came with it.
If the images above look like a doodle of someone’s LSD-induced dream, you aren't the first to think so. Many of Haeckel's scientific depictions of marine life turned out like this. Intricate drawings of radiolarians (seen above) were some of his first works. Most of them were microorganisms he had identified himself, described and drawn through years of research.
The scientist compiled them into a monograph and its success advanced him into a lifelong career as a researcher. He continued the production of such illustrations, expanding into other species and some 100 of them ended up in his most famous book series, Kunstformen der Natur (“Art Forms in Nature”).
Original 1904 cover of “Kunstformen der Natur”.
The Collaboration of Art and Science
The dichotomy between art and science in modern times is common, but it wasn’t in the 19th century. Back then, true intellectuals were proficient in many subjects. Haeckel didn't see the two realms as contradictory either, and reconciled them with confidence that's rare to find today. He wanted to explore the connections of the scientific study of nature to its inner beauty.
At the time, lithographs were the most advanced visual aids for scientific findings. They served as eye-catchers, crucial to attracting the interest of other literates. Haeckel's creative nature and dedication to popularize evolution concepts pushed him to utilize it. He wanted others to understand his work, but many of his findings were under the microscope, impossible to showcase. Illustration became the perfect medium for this aspiration.
The German Darwin
Introduction to Darwin's theories was another key moment in Haeckel's career. He did his best to popularize them and it provided the drive he needed to dive into his research with new rigor. The zoologist traveled to many remote regions and studied the exotic habitats, and related it to Darwin’s theories. Because of it, Haeckel became known as “the German Darwin”.
While researching, travelling and writing books, he completed other fascinating monographs with stunning pictures of microbes. It’s no surprise that part of his success is attributed to his art. The illustrations he shared amazed Darwin and they became close acquaintances. Haeckel exchanged dozens of letters with his superior, although he diverged from Darwin's ideas in later years.
The philosophy of his art
At its core, Haeckel’s art reveals his aesthetic aspirations. An era of enlightenment and romanticism with thinkers like Humboldt and Goethe influenced his search for order and beauty. Haeckel found it in nature, in the mesmerizing geometry of organisms, and his need to capture it at times overshadowed scientific ideals.
That's why he exaggerated some of his drawings for visual impact. He put great emphasis on the arrangement of his illustrations to promote patterns and symmetry. As an artist, he focused on the forms of organisms, rather than the accuracy in their scales or habitats.
Because of this, many have compared Haeckel's works to psychedelic arts. Both contain contrasting colors, otherworldly forms and extreme stylisation. Could these coincidental parallels have an actual link? Historians would say 'no', but Haeckel did spend his days looking at the world through the lens of a microscope.
At times, in the harsh conditions of foreign climates, he drew his findings in painstaking detail. The amount of concentration it required could have made it something akin to a psychedelic experience. Or it could be that we, as humans and across time, have similar experiences while dealing with the microcosm.
The legacy of Ernst Haeckel
Haeckel had no idea what major impact his collections would have in the future. He didn't mean for it to become artwork shared across the globe. His microbe depictions, published in “Art Forms in Nature”, inspired dozens of artists and architects. As it coincided with the rise of the Art Nouveau and the surrealist movements, its followers sought to rediscover and embrace natural forms. Haeckel’s designs touched the works of many painters, such as Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
Today, Ernst Haeckel’s art continues to mesmerize those who discover it. Haeckel’s wish has come true. He provided a window to the enchanting micro world unseen to the naked eye, and we understood it. We enjoyed it. Did you?
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