Ernst Haeckel's Elegant Universe

Ernst Haeckel's Elegant Universe

Anyone who has ever heard or used the words "Darwinism" or "ecology" is familiar with the work of Ernst Haeckel, a German naturalist/physician/philosopher/illustrator who coined those terms in the late 19th century. Despite his undeniable talent as a wordsmith (he also invented the well-known phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") Haeckel is best-remembered today for his scientific illustrations.

Haeckel's geometric, symmetry-rich aesthetic is frequently considered to be closely tied to the Jugendstil (or Art Nouveau) movement. He also had a somewhat surprising influence on the world of modern dance: the German choreographer Rudolf von Laban was purportedly heavily influenced by Haeckel's work, as well.

Now, Haeckel certainly wasn't the first artist or illustrator to feature detailed natural imagery. Neither was he the first or most prominent scientist to dabble in the visual arts (John James Audubon springs immediately to mind). What I find particularly intriguing about Haeckel's work, then - in addition to his obvious talent as an illustrator - is the fascinating way in which he confounded the practices of science and art. Haeckel was dedicated to identifying some fundamental relationship between scientific practice, the natural world and aesthetic principles:

Nature exhibits a unity underlying an ever-astonishing variety. There is an inherent geometry and symmetry in nature.

At the time Haeckel was working, the European aesthetic milieu was undeniably permeated with symmetry and natural imagery. I'm really in no position to postulate how this trend originated - perhaps it had something to do with Darwin's imposition of rationality onto the seemingly divine and inexplicable natural world; perhaps it was a combination of the Enlightenment desire for rational order and a thirst for a return to pre-urban natural environments in a rapidly industrializing society. Maybe it was some combination of all of these factors or something else altogether. Regardless, a certain stylized depiction of flora and fauna was common in areas as diverse as British textiles, French advertisements, and German painting.

William Morris, Lily and Pomegranate (1886). Many 19th-century artists and designers employed highly symmetric natural images in their work. Image from the V&A Collection.

William Morris, Lily and Pomegranate (1886). Many 19th-century artists and designers employed highly symmetric natural images in their work. Image from the V&A Collection.

Haeckel saw much of that same order and symmetry reflected in the world around him. For him, the field of embryology was something of a proving ground for demonstrating the interconnectedness of all natural beings - including humankind. For instance, the parallel paths of development taken by species that appeared to be dramatically different (as illustrated in the drawing below) was taken as an indication of some sort of universal structure or order - the same structure Haeckel and his contemporaries took such great care to illustrate in their works of art.

Double-plate illustration showing embryos of fish (F), salamander (A), turtle (T), chick (H), pig (S), cow (R), rabbit (K), and human (M), at "very early", "somewhat later" and "still later" stages, from Haeckel's Anthropogenie (1874). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Double-plate illustration showing embryos of fish (F), salamander (A), turtle (T), chick (H), pig (S), cow (R), rabbit (K), and human (M), at "very early", "somewhat later" and "still later" stages, from Haeckel's Anthropogenie (1874). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Today, nearly all of Haeckel's theories on embryonic development have been disproven, and even in his own day some of his antics - like illustrating the embryo of a dog, a chick and a turtle with the exact same woodcut - came under heavy fire. Nonetheless, had he lived for another forty years Haeckel might have found the unifying element he was looking for: an elegant molecule known as deoxyribonucleic acid. Still, even if the world of his illustrations isn't a truly accurate reflection of reality, at least that world was never lacking in beauty.

An illustration of sea squirts by Ernst Haeckel. From the MBL/WHOI library archives.

An illustration of sea squirts by Ernst Haeckel. From the MBL/WHOI library archives.

 

Notes:

This post was originally published on my derelict Wordpress blog way back in 2013. #throwbackwednesday?

The title image is Haeckel's depiction of the flag-mouth jellyfish (from the MBL/WHOI library archives).

What’s in a model?