Did you know that, before the advent of photography, many scientists, especially biologists, had to either hire great illustrators or be great artists themselves?
Charles Darwin, for example, worked closely with illustrators in order to document, and further study, his findings.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a naturalist and biologist who was also a great artist and illustrator, is Ernst Haeckel, the German naturalist, philosopher, and artist. Here are some of the best illustrations from his illustrious career.
A very short history of Haeckel
Ernst Heinrich Haeckel was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, and early proponent of Darwinism who cataloged and named thousands of species, and mapped them on a genealogical tree.
According to This is Colossal, Ernst Haeckel coined several scientific terms used today, including "ecology, phylum, and stem cell."
He was known for his sublime art as well as for his scientific observations — expertly drawn, highly stylized, and somewhat surreal depictions of exotic flora and fauna meant that he was later cited as an inspiration for the Art Nouveau movement.
One aspect of Ernst Haeckel's life and work, unfortunately, is not a cause for celebration. The scientist was a leading figure in the pseudoscientific movements of Social Darwinism and scientific racism — focal points for many of the 20th century's problems.
Ernst Haeckel's best work was collected in his series of books called Kunstformen der Natur — which translates from German to “Art Forms in Nature.”
As Rainer Willmann, a professor of zoology at Gottingen University and the director of its Zoological Museum wrote in The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel:
“With such a title he sought to secure the attention of those with an interest in the beauties of nature, and to emphasize, through this rare instance of the interplay of science and aesthetics, the proximity of these two realms.”
The series of ten books first started to be printed in 1889 and they were later collected in two volumes in 1904.
1. Jellyfish (Discomedusae)
Haeckel's 8th print depicted the Discomedusae, a subclass of jellyfish. The center and bottom-center images are Desmonema annasethe. The flowing tentacles reportedly reminded Haeckel of his wife's flowing hair — let's hope she took that as a compliment.
2. Jellyfish (Anthomedusae)
These stunning drawings depict the Anthomedusae, another subclass of jellyfish, of which there are approximately 1,200 species worldwide.
3. Antelope (Antilopina)
As with all of Ernst Haeckel's prints, this collection shows several of the roughly 90 antelope species that exist.
4. Arachnid (Arachnida)
Ernst Haeckel's drawings are characterized by their attention to detail. Included in his Arachnida class of drawings are spiders, scorpions, mites, and ticks.
5. Frog (Batrachia)
Two of Haeckel's more surreal drawings are this frog print and the turtle drawings below. The oldest discovered frog fossil may date back to approximately 265 million years ago. Frogs are classified as amphibians while turtles are classified as reptiles.
6. Turtle (Chelonia)
7. Bat (Chiroptera)
From Haeckel's drawings, you can see how the mammals became such a fascination for horror writers such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was first published in 1897.
8. Conifer (Coniferae)
9. Box jellyfish (Cubomedusae)
Box jellyfish are cnidarian invertebrates that have distinctive cube-shaped medusae. Some species of box jellyfish produce extremely potent venom that can be fatal to humans.
10. Decapods (Decapoda)
Decapods are an order of crustaceans within the class of Malacostraca. They include many well-known groups, such as crabs, lobsters, prawns, and shrimp.
11. Cephalopod (Gamochonia)
Ernst Haeckel's cephalopod drawings include illustrations of squids, octopuses, and nautiluses. The aesthetics of these animals have long been a source of fascination for artists and scientists — houses and buildings have been inspired by them.
12. Fern (Filicinae)
13. Lizard (Lacertilia)
“Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form,” writes Katherine Schwab of Fast Co. Design, “as if it’s a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope."
14. Nepenthes (Nepenthaceae)
15. Orchid (Orchidae)
Haeckel's beautifully-drawn illustrations of the Orchid family, as well as his many drawings of other flora, including ferns and carnivorous plants, likely inspired many an Art Nouveau wallpaper.
16. Boxfish (Ostraciontes)
17. Prosobranchia (obsolete classification)
The Prosobranchia is an example of an erroneous classification of a taxonomic subclass. This is due to the fact that, since it was first classified in the early 20th century, it has been found to have more than one lineage of descent, meaning the species can no longer be classified as belonging to a single subclass.
18. Moth (Tineida)
19. Hummingbird (Trochilidae)
Ernst Haeckel's work was “not just a book of illustrations but also the summation of his view of the world.” The German naturalist embraced the theory of Darwinian evolution, and also helped to popularize it, wrote scholar Olaf Breidbach in his 2006 book Visions of Nature.
The influential scientist's work comes from a time before photography was largely taken for granted when the best way to classify and catalog groups of animals and subspecies was to open a sketchbook, engage the imagination, and start drawing.