Art + Botany: Ernst Haeckel

Art + Botany: Ernst Haeckel

July 29, 2011
Photo by: Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature

If art is an interpretation of the observable world, then the artist's work is a negotiation between the literal and the imagined. Many botanic artists fall heavily towards the former. Their art is admired for faithful reproductions of plant subjects and whether out of reverence for their beauty—"I couldn't possibly improve on this exquisite blossom"—or adherence to a scientific imperative—"My purpose is to document the form, aphids and all"—they work toward an accurate representation of the botanic world.

In this respect, illustrator and scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is a bit of an anomaly among botanic artists. His illustrations were scientifically meticulous, yet rendered as the stylized vision of a philosopher. Every flower was considered an archetype of its species, and a perfect form of nature. To a curious 19th-century audience, Haeckel introduced the term "ecology," a concept that he illustrated with his beautiful impressions of the natural world. 

Haeckel-pitcher plant

Plate 62, Art Forms in Nature. A Malaysian pitcher plant (Nepenthacae), discovered in Java in 1901, where Haeckel painted it from life. The tendrils are an example of Haeckel's Art Nouveau style. 

As a scientist, he was a student of the empirical Enlightenment; as an illustrator, however, he was a disciple of the philosophical Romantics. His drawings of plants were rendered with exquisite precision, though not exactly true to form. Under Haeckel's brush, the natural world was symmetrical, perfectly patterned, and flawless. 

Haeckel worked to illustrate his understanding of biology, evolution, and the natural world, which meant he was dubiously regarded by scientists, and embraced by artists. He is regarded as a forerunner of the Art Nouveau movement, and his collection of 100 colored lithographs, published in Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur, 1904) is considered a marvel of 19th-century naturalist illustration. 


Plate 694, Art Forms in Nature. Haeckel's Coniferae specimens are not drawn to scale, instead he arranged them to enhance the beauty of the collection as a whole.

His observations of nature were thorough and methodical—discovering and illustrating almost 4,000 microscopic species, and writing books that were translated into twenty languages. He was also a master of visual persuasion, visually narrating evolutionary concepts that made them newly accessible to academia and the public. He was an advocate of Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species (1859), but he was also a devotee of Goethe, who thought that the unifying principles of nature could be examined through art as well as science. Goethe and Haeckel believed in the inherent archetypes of nature, and that the true form of a specimen could be revealed in an illustration of that underlying archetype.


Plate 82, Art Forms in Nature. A collection of liverworts (Hepaticae), designed and illustrated with perfect symmetry and patterns. 

And so Haeckel is tossed back and forth a bit between science and art—he was a rigorous artist, drawing specimens in the field, traveling from Sicily to Ceylon and through the North Sea to find deep-sea vegetation, orchids, birds and ferns, but the result was illustrations that were somewhat removed from the field. Perfectly spiraling floral tendrils reflected Haeckel's ideal of the form, and perhaps not so much the flower itself. And this served the artist's purpose to convey a harmony of the natural world, and its gorgeous unifying patterns. Haeckel pursued both science and art with a similar philosophy: the pursuit of beauty and a perfect order. 

Haeckel and assistant

Ernst Haeckel (seated) with his assistant Nikolaus Miclucho-Maclay in the Canary Islands, 1866.