The Art of the Remarkable Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms in Nature

Original Title Page of
Art Forms in Nature
Born in 1834 in Potsdam, at that time Prussia, Ernst Haeckel initially trained as a physician, but his interests lay elsewhere, notably in shapes and patterns in Nature and their evolution. Art Forms in Nature was published as a series of 100 lithographs at the turn of the 1800s. These images are as powerful today as when they must have been when they astounded the public at the time of their first publication. Artists continue to draw upon these images to create jewellery, textiles and ceramics; also architects: Binet, and possibly Gaudi, have used them as inspirations for architectural design.

It is Haeckel’s images of the drifting plankton of the oceans that are the most captivating. Away from our eyes, in most cases, hidden in the darkness of the seas, they exhibit forms and patterns of life quite alien to us, and seem of another world, perhaps, being mostly invisible to our eyes, they really are.

Ernst Haeckel’s image of
a group of radiolarians

Detail from Haeckel’s drawing of
the siphonophore Alophota

Haeckel’s image of the
medusa Periphylla mirabilis

They range in size from the microscopic, commonly small fractions of a millimetre, to massive jellyfish that can reach tens of metres in length. His work for the Challenger Expedition reports focussed on three groups of planktonic organisms – two groups of jellyfish – the Medusae and the far less known set of diverse and fascinating organisms – the Siphonophores - and his great love the tiny radiolarians. His images of these creatures are both beautiful as objects in themselves, and provide a fascinating insight into scientific illustration from an era when photography of any kind was in its infancy and colour photography was completely unavailable.