Obelisk Art History
The Artists

Ernst Haeckel
The beautiful weirdness of nature

Portrait of Ernst Haeckel

In 1864 Ernst Haeckel turned thirty and read, for the first time, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Haeckel was a newly minted biologist, having earned a doctorate in zoology two years before. Haeckel had settled into a professorship of comparative anatomy at the University of Jena, where he studied underappreciated forms of sea life—annelids, or segmented worms, radiolaria protozoa, and the ever-useful porifera, or sponges.

The Origin of Species was gasoline to Haeckel’s intellectual fire. While Darwin’s theories were cautious and technical, Haeckel was inspired to make more dramatic claims. Haeckel considered natural selection merely a starting point, incorporating Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of ‘soft inheritance’ and his own observations of the morphology of sea sponges and protozoa. He published his grand unified theory under the title Generelle Morphologie, in 1866. But Haeckel’s Morphologie was a flop. The writing was dry, the books sold poorly, and even Darwin himself was unable to complete it.

But while his writing was stiff, Haeckel’s public speaking was dynamic. In a series of well-attended lectures open to both students and local townspeople, Haeckel laid out his comprehensive theory of evolution in more conversational terms, and supported the lectures with his drawings of embryos and specimens. These lectures were transcribed by his students, and collected into his second book, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, which catapulted Haeckel into the aggressive world of popular science.

Reed Enger, "Ernst Haeckel, The beautiful weirdness of nature," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 25, 2016; last modified November 08, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/ernst-haeckel/.

Ernst Haeckel was a German Scientific Illustrator born on February 16, 1834. Haeckel contributed to the Enlightenment movement and died on August 9, 1919.

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 17: Siphonophorae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 17: Siphonophorae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 28: Discomedusae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 28: Discomedusae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 43: Nudibranchia, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 43: Nudibranchia 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 49: Actiniae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 49: Actiniae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 58: Hexacoralla, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 58: Hexacoralla 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 58: Tineida, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 58: Tineida 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 6: Tubulariae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 6: Tubulariae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 62: Nepenthaceae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 62: Nepenthaceae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 68: Batrachia, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 68: Batrachia 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 71: Stephoidea, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 71: Stephoidea 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 72: Muscinae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 72: Muscinae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 74: Orchidae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 74: Orchidae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 78: Cubomedusae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 78: Cubomedusae 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 79: Lacertilia, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 79: Lacertilia 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 83: Lichenes, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 83: Lichenes 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 85: Ascidiacea, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 85: Ascidiacea 1904

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 96: Chaetopoda, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, Plate 96: Chaetopoda 1904

Art Forms in Nature, 99: Trochilidae, Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature, 99: Trochilidae 1904

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The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, Recommended Reading

A classic big 'ol Taschen book, you're gonna get a bio, essays, and a bunch of beautiful reproductions. I don't own this book yet, so don't know if they cover Haeckel's theories about the lost continent of Lemuria...

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