This 19th-Century Illustrator Found Beauty in the Slimiest of Sea Creatures
A new book chronicles Ernst Haeckel’s life and his gorgeous renderings of wild things—scales, spikes, tentacles and all
February 16, 1864, should have been a happy day for Ernst Haeckel.
On this day, the German Academy of Sciences awarded the famed naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician and illustrator the Cothenius Medal, a high honor acknowledging his many scientific achievements. It was also Haeckel’s 30th birthday. But this date also marks the day his wife of a mere 18 months, Anna Sethe, died from what is now thought to be a burst appendix.
Haeckel was enraptured by the woman, who—as he described to a friend—was a "completely unspoiled, pure, natural person." Never fully recovering from the loss, he captured her memory a few years later in an illustration of an unlikely creature: a jellyfish.
Dubbed Desmonema annasethe, after his late wife, the jellyfish's tentacles delicately intertwine in a sweeping trail behind its bell in Haeckel's image. "You can really see how it's swinging through the ocean," says Julia Voss, an author of the new book The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, which chronicles Haeckel's life and work. "It looks like a dress; it looks like hair; it has this elegance."
Such elegance and beauty graces nearly every page of the new Haeckel compendium—from the tiny spires of the microscopic radiolarian to the twist of the pitcher plant vine and the flow of the annasethe jellyfish that glides across the back cover of the book. Written along with Rainer Willmann, the director of the Zoological Museum at Göttingen University who specializes is phylogenetics and evolution, the book includes complete reprints of seven of Haeckel’s volumes of illustrations—corals, sponges, medusae and more—and adds commentary and context to each.
Born in Potsdam, Germany (then Prussia), Haeckel was the second—and last—child in his family. Both his grandfather and his father worked in government, and his older brother eventually followed suit. Haeckel, however, was fascinated by adventure and nature. Though he reluctantly enrolled in a medical program at Berlin University, he wasn't fully sated.
It was a research trip in 1854 to the North Sea islands of Heligoland that captured his imagination. He had no formal training in art, but dove head first into the study and detailed documentation of marine organisms. He published the first volume of his study of radiolarian in 1862—a work that played a large part in him later receiving the prized Cothenius Medal. In 1865, he was appointed a full professor of zoology at University of Jena, where he produced an "avalanche" of illustrations, as Voss puts it.
Despite this success, his life was also punctuated by much sadness—from his fraught second marriage to Agnes Huschke to the mental illness that plagued his youngest daughter. "Haeckel himself is like this one day [February 16, 1864], where the worst things happen and the most beautiful things happen," says Voss. A German journalist and scientific historian, Voss wrote her doctoral dissertation on visual representations of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
While undertones of sadness flow through Desmonema annasethe, there is a certain joy and unforgettable whimsy to all of his creatures, like the waggle in his calcareous sponges or the squiggle of the siphonophores.
"His scientific paintings and drawings shaped a signature style of the epoch," says Voss. As she writes in the book: "[T]he deep-sea creatures he drew clambered out from the pages of his Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1899-1904) and onto the cities of Europe, their squares and facades onto stage curtains, and into paintings." For example, medusae much like those he illustrated, hung from the ceiling of the Institut Oceanographique in Monaco, France, which opened its doors in 1910. And his meticulously crafted creatures were an important inspiration in the development of the Art Nouveau movement, known for its organic designs.
Haeckel's "heavy legacy," as Voss calls it, also looms large in modern science. Along with his meticulous documentation of every scale, spike and tentacle, Haeckel named thousands of new species. He coined terms still in use today, including phylum, phylogeny and ecology. He was also a champion of evolution, entranced by Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and was among the first to sketch out an evolutionary tree—a fundamental part of the modern study of life.
As Voss explains, Haeckel was instrumental in popularizing evolution in Germany. The theory was met with stiff opposition in part, says Voss, because of distaste at the idea that humans came from some "slimy creature at the bottom of the sea," she says.
Haeckel's work, however, offered a splendid counterpoint to the idea that life evolved from simple creatures. "We come from a creature from the bottom of the sea, but look at them—look how beautiful they are; look how fascinating they are," Voss says of his illustrations. Haeckel's tiny radiolarians have an entrancing three-dimensional quality, which was unusual for other art of the day, and his choice to put many of the creatures on black backgrounds makes them appear to burst from the pages.
Yet not all Haeckel's ideas were scientifically—or morally—sound, Voss notes. While Darwin didn't include humans in his popular On the Origin of Species (only referring to "race" to describe groups of non-human creatures), Haeckel embraced racist ideas of the time, applying Darwin's principles to people in what Voss calls the "ugly side of evolutionary theory."
The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel includes one such racist depiction. The controversial 1868 image displays a dozen profiles of heads—six human and six ape, with the "highest" primates listed first. Haeckel's description of the plate states: "It is clear that the lowliest forms of humanity resemble superior apes far more closely than they resemble higher forms of humanity." Unsurprisingly, Indo-Germanic, a group to which Haeckel belonged, tops this hierarchy.
Though this and other related depictions are undoubtedly incorrect, "I find it important to show these," Voss says. She wants to acknowledge Haeckel’s scientifically and artistically important advances as well as his racist viewpoints, so as not to erase these from history. The new book shows Haeckel in his entirety.
Tabbing through its 704 oversized pages, it's easy to see his mastery of the medium and his dynamic capabilities of illustration. It's oft repeated that Haeckel could draw with one eye looking through a microscope and another at his page. "He would really baffle his colleagues with his capacity," Voss says.
And while some of his viewpoints are bigoted, controversial or disproven, many scientifically important images and ideas have endured through the years—even showing up in biology textbooks today. The wonder he saw in the world around him can still powerfully be felt through his imagery. When Voss' first copies of the book arrived, she called her two sons, ages six and seven, to come see. "We sat together on the sofa and we spent an hour in this book together," she says. "They would ask me, 'What is this? What is this?'"
"I think it's so fascinating to see that none of the wonder has gone," she says. "Now, more than 100 years later, we still sit on the sofa [asking], 'What is this?'"
Some of the creatures filling the pages aren’t exactly cute, and many are microscopic, but through Haeckel's steady hand everyone can grasp the beauty, the elegance—and sometimes the sadness—in all walks of life.