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Popular "Art Forms In Nature" Becomes Victorian Era Entertainment

Updated on March 22, 2017
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Ms. Venegas is exploring art and the enjoyment it can offer in retirement. Ersnt Haeckel sparked several years of reading and discovery.

Ocean Creature Books
Ocean Creature Books

Art Nouveau in Nature

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was a zoologist and artist in Germany during the late 19th century and became well known as a popular speaker, writer and artist.

His many pursuits included a medical doctorate, professorship of zoology, studies in biology, taxonomy, lecturer, and painting. Haeckel embraced Darwinism and was the inventor of the family tree scientific concept found in textbooks up until the seventies.

His work is still evident in many fields and ideologies. He was the first to use in his writings scientific words common today: ecology and phylum to name two. He contributed to art history with his "Art Forms in Nature".

Plate # 84 Art Forms in Nature

Diatoms | Source
Ernst Haeckel
Ernst Haeckel

The Young Man Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel graduates from high school in 1852 and begins medical studies. One summer he traveled and studied marine biology as an assistant peering at sea creatures through a telescope. In 1858 he passes medical exams and opens his own practice, but his heart is not in the medical field.

After his medical studies, Haeckel decides to paint watercolors and studies art in Italy starting in 1859. He is now thinking of being a landscape painter or a scientist. He opts for zoology and takes a teaching position at University of Jena, called Friedrich Schiller University Jena today, and remains there.

He writes his friend "life is anything but tedious owing to nature's inexhaustible richness which...produces ever new, beautiful and fascinating forms that provide new material to speculate and ponder over, to draw and describe.... in addition to the scientific element, it involves artistic matters to a large degree."

Puffer fish
Puffer fish

Professor for 47 Years at the University of Jena

His papers were richly illustrated with his own work. His work proved him a scientist and an artist. Haeckel arranged and enhanced his subjects with symmetry and the style of the day. His style was Art Nouveau that was becoming popular during the Romantic Movement. His "Art Forms in Nature" help cement the Art Nouveau look. Designers and architects of the day used his art in many of their own creations.

This was a researcher in science and an artist. His career left more than 1000 drawings and plates. Art Forms in Nature was comprised of 100 plates in subscription form offered 10 at a time starting in 1904.

In 1907 he lays the cornerstone of the Phyletic Museum. The museum was financed by Haeckel and donated funds.

Fish from Plate 42 Arts Forms in Nature

Nature as Art

The Romantic Movement ushered the acceptance of emotions as a valid experience. Today such an idea is everyday life. We experience awe and emotion through travel and new sights; horror, such as in "horror movies", fright in thrill rides, and amazement like in political news.

As a young man Haeckel approached a life's work in a romantic sense. To be truthful not every individual has that chance. He was from a family that held education to high esteem and they were willing to help their son. To study marine life as a zoologist and then put those studies to an art form was, I imagine, very exciting.

He abandoned the medical career to study microscopic creatures of the sea in 1859. In 1862 he published his Radiolarien, a monograph of hundreds of plates illustrating the various forms of protozoa and their microscopic mineral skeletons. The plates with rich detail fit into the arts and crafts ideals of the time. He became a household name and the monolith became entertainment for Victorian parlors.

Haeckel's designs embraced art nouveau. By 1900 the art nouveau movement was in full prominence. The Paris Exhibition of 1900 was designed entirely in the art nouveau style.
For an interesting photo collection see L' Exposition Universelle de 1900 Ã Paris.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Haeckel Publishes Art Forms in Nature

In 1899 one year before the Paris Expedition opening Haeckel publishes the Art Forms in Nature. It is offered as a subscription of 10 plates for each mailing. 100 plates in all. In 1904 a complete volume is available.

John Audubon pursued this very method of art and art distribution with his Birds of America - 1837-1839. Haeckels Plates 72, 74, 92 and 99 are very reminiscent of Audubon's work. Art nouveau was already a trend and Haeckel borrowed heavily from it for his Art Forms in Nature. Applying art nouveau to nature was a good fit because detail could be utilized to the fullest.

A certain level of fascination is present in each plate and detail draws observer in, much like the "find the hidden object" games in a child's magazine. Ernst Haeckel was awed by nature and made it available to the middle class for study and enjoyment.

Ernst Haeckel Publishes Books on Ocean Life

The short biographical above is intended as an introduction for new discoverers of the scholar. If an artist's work is interesting, many admirers become interested in the artist's life and influences. What drove the artist?

Wanting to know more, I enjoyed the biography by Robert J Richards. For Haeckel meeting Darwin at his home in England remanded Haeckel's highlight of his life's work concerning nature and zoology.

For a review about the book "The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernest Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought" by Robert J. Richards visit P D Smith.

Current Publication of Art Forms in Nature

Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel
Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel

This book has all of the plates. There is a very good biography that is not too long to read and gives a good amount of information. Also, an essay on "...Viewing Haeckel's Pictures," and his art's relationship to art nouveau. Large format book. This is the book that introduced me to Ernst Haeckel and started further Internet discovery. It is not expensive.


By 1900 Haeckel is a Household Name in Europe

1900 Paris Exposition Entrance gates by Rene Binet based on Haeckel's radiolarian drawings.

Medusa Chandelier in Monaco Museum

Design for glass chandelier Oceanographic Museum, Monaco taken from Plate 88.

The Museum was built in 1910.

photo frm Monaco Museum
photo frm Monaco Museum

Museum picture from official website Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

The 360 degree video on the museum website shows this chandelier hanging in the main central lobby.

All One Hundred Plates Available to Everyone

All the plates of Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature are available on Wikimedia Commons.

The site is at Haeckel on Wikimedia.

Plate 62 at right.

Photos of Haeckel House in Jena

Linda6769 has allowed me to link her flickr photos of Haeckel's home in Jena. See the links below. When in flickr browse her photo's of Haeckel's home.

Plate #27 Comb Being Jellyfish

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Review of Proteus DVD

This is a perfect example of how first viewings of Haechel drawings can draw awe from the artist. Most suited as classroom introduction for high school or college biology classes, but can be effective in the art classroom too.

The DVD is perfect for the person who knows very little about Ernst Haeckel. For me, being one who has seen the new 3D in theaters of the 21st century it is a bit disappointing and it is short on facts that would excite the new discoverer of Ernst Haeckel. I was more excited viewing the current "Art Forms in Nature". sv

Is Ernst Haeckel New to You?

Did you know of Ernst Haeckel before this reading?

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New version of the Medusa by Timothy Horn made of silicon rubber. Fantastic. See news clip and photo site at toddhosfelt's Weblog on Haeckel inspired chandelier. Scroll for his April 22, 2008 posting.

Chandelier is inspired by the medusa in plate #88 above.

Plate #92
Plate #92

© 2009 Sherry Venegas

Ernst Haeckel: Artist and Zoologist

Submit a Comment

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    RinchenChodron 3 years ago

    Very informative and educational. I had not been aware of Haeckel before. I love his work.

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    sherioz 4 years ago

    This is a brilliant article. I love his work and it was so interesting learning about him as a person.

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    Sherry Venegas 4 years ago from La Verne, CA

    @KayRennie: Miklouho-Maclay was a favorite student of Haeckel and they traveled to the Canary Islands to study sea creatures. Where Haeckel came from a family that helped pay for his travels, Miklouho-Maclay, you mentioned, only had his mother to help him out. Haeckel was rather judgmental of debts Miklouho-Maclay left behind in Jena. There is a chapter about their trip in the book "The Tragic Sense of Life, Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought" by Robert J Richards.

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    Kay Rennie 4 years ago from Melbourne

    Great lens. I did some research on Ernst Haeckel when writing my novel about the Russian explorer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay. They traveled together.

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    joannalynn lm 4 years ago

    Haeckel was quite the thinker, and you are clearly passionate about his work.

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