Incredible Detailed Nature Illustrations Open Up Darwinian World of 19th Century

The 19th century was a blustery time for science. The evolutionary foresight of Charles Darwin had just arrived on the scene and dismantled almost everything we know about biology. One person in particular who welcomed him with open arms was German-born biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919). A true polymath, Haeckel was a naturalist, evolutionist, artist, philosopher, and doctor who spent his life researching flora and fauna from the highest mountaintops to the deepest ocean. A vociferous supporter and developer of Darwin’s theories of evolution through his work.

Cystoidea from Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature) by Ernst Haeckel, 1904.

Haeckel’s work is greatly appreciated today especially at a time when biodiversity is increasingly threatened by human activities, and remains a vivid reminder of the precious variety of life. He was a pioneer who captured the artistic beauty of the natural world. Haeckel denounced religious dogma, authored philosophical treatises, gained a doctorate in zoology and coined scientific terms which have passed into common usage, including ecology, phylum, and stem cell.

A color plate illustrating Ascidiacea from Ernst Haeckel’s ”Kunstformen der Natur” (1899)

Cave to Canvas, Ernst Haeckel, Orchidae, 1904

Unfortunately, he spent a lot of his life mired in controversy, criticized for racist supportive interpretations of Darwin’s work. One of his most well-known quotes was “politics is applied biology”. Some argue that Haeckel had a unique position in the rise of Nazi biology during the first part of the 20th century.

The 56th plate from ”Kunstformen der Natur” (1904), depicting organisms classified as Copepoda.

At the heart of Haeckel’s colossal legacy was the motivation not only to discover but also to explain. To do this, he created hundreds of detailed drawings, watercolours, and sketches of his findings which he published in successive volumes, including several marine organism collections and the majestic Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), which could serve as the cornerstone of Haeckel’s entire life project.

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

Like a meticulous visual encyclopedia of living things, Haeckel’s work was as remarkable for its graphic precision and meticulous shading as for its understanding of organic evolution. From bats to the box jellyfish, lizards to lichen, and spider legs to sea anemones, Haeckel emphasized the essential symmetries and order of nature and found biological beauty in even the most unlikely of creatures.

Specimen of Gordon headed starfish, published in 1904

The book Art & Science contains 450 of his finest prints from several of his most important tomes, including Die Radiolarien, Monographie der Medusen, Die Kalkschwämme, and Kunstformen der Natur.

The Art & Science of Ernst Haeckel – is out in November through Taschen

All images: © TASCHEN Köln/Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen