Ernst Haeckel’s brilliant illustrations


The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access and responsible use as a part of a global biodiversity commons.

Scientific illustration, especially of a biological kind, reached an apex in terms of draughtsmanship and delicateness during 19th century before photography become widespread. Though the emphasis on these illustrations was on accuracy, utility and facsimile of biodiversity, the personal aesthetics of the artists inevitably wrestled their way into the frame.

Ernst Haeckel’s brilliant illustrations are the canonical example of this kind of treatment. The imperfect geometries of real world protists and radiolarians were rectified to a crystalline precision and made perfect. Haeckel’s organisms are made to appear to behave like tiny machines. Their colours are over saturated and amplified to the point of psychedelic hyperreality. The revisions in his illustrations were sometimes made to fit theories that defined his own slant on Darwinian evolution. This was taken to the extreme in Haeckel’s embryology illustrations that he hoped would popularise his‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ theory.


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