Ernst Haeckel’s Secret Origins Revealed


New research has uncovered the origins of Earnst Haeckel, the turn-of-the-century German biologist/artist revered to this day by both scientists and designers alike for his awe-inspiring biological engravings (if you’re unfamiliar with Haeckel, click here immediately). His surprising origin: greeting card designer! Historian John Holbo elaborates:

Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 “Kunstformen der Natur” [Artforms of Nature] is a classic of biological illustration. What is less generally known is that the artist started as a Christmas card designer. The book was originally simply an album of holiday designs.

“All the sweet things that the Squiddies/Twittering in the dewy spray/Wish each other in the springtime/I wish you this happy day.”

During the Victorian era Christmas was indeed regarded as a ‘happy’ day, but one of uncanny terror; accordingly, cards and ornamentation featured strange creatures with too many tentacles. But then Santa Claus became popular, and many of these older designs ‘fell out of fashion’.

Commercially marooned, unable to draw anything except tentacles and congeries of pustules/bubbles, Haeckel wandered into natural ‘science’ – almost as an afterthought – when he discovered that the stuff he had been drawing actually existed, give or take a tentacle. Isn’t that interesting?

It also turns out that Ada Byron Lovelace was his mom. History is awesome! You can see the Haeckel greeting cards Holbo’s Flickr stream, and purchase reproductions here.

12 Responses to “Ernst Haeckel’s Secret Origins Revealed”

  1. Beetleginny Says:

    love love love his work. I have a piece tattooed on most of back. I’m planning on getting more once the octo is colored in.

  2. Suzanne Says:

    Hmm.. interesting.. I’ve seen John’s Häckel Flickr set many times, but never actually read his commentary and I assume it’s all a hoax, but then again, I’m way too tired to differentiate between fact and fiction right now.

    What’s weird, however, is how much good old Ernst gets hyped by artists of all sorts these days – as if his works were published only recently. I don’t get it. For me, they were always almost as fundamental as Darwin’s legacy, but once you’ve seen all his studies (and yes, there’s an awful lot of ’em but it’s addictive to view them), you’ve seen them all. It’s not that they’re difficult to understand or have a secret hidden meaning. They’re actually pretty self-explanatory in their beauty of colour, shape and composition. Maybe that’s why his work is still so appealing.. I dunno.

    However, I completely fail to understand why certain individuals need to pretty much directly copy from him when all he’s done was just observing nature and adapting its forms.

    I mean… I’m rubbish at drawing, but even I managed to draw a brittle star in biology class when I was 12. Hehe.

  3. Nadya Says:

    Ginny: Tattoo is lovely!

    Suzanne: I think it’s simply too good to be true, just a holiday jest. Still, one can dream! :)

    I discovered of Häckel’s work when I moved into my first apartment. It was waiting for me, on the floor. Whoever moved out took all the furniture, but left behind some books in the living room, including a colored version of Art Forms in Nature. Since then, Bjork used his designs as a stage backdrop, I’ve seen some wonderful web design that incorporated his work, etc. He’s definitely gotten a lot of play in recent years.

    But I think as far as art goes, the trend to put tentacles, marine life, etc., into artwork doesn’t come so much from Häckel directly as it does from getting inspired by stuff like Cthulhu Mythos, pervy Japanese woodcuts, etc. Häckel’s images definitely provide a wonderful reference for putting those kinds visuals into your art, but I agree with you that he’s too straight-forward to be the source; it comes from a weirder place, and it’s been discovered that his stuff lends itself amazingly well to it. Hence the reinterpretations. We got into it a little bit last year on this blog when I asked, “why do we all love tentacles so much, anyway?” People had some interesting things to say about that.

  4. Mer Says:

    HAHAHA! Oh, that poem. Priceless. (Sorry, Ernst, we keed because we love.)

    Ginny, that’s an exquisite tattoo.

    My mom’s a biologist and my dad’s a deep-sea biophysicist; I grew up with scads of Haeckel plate reproductions lying around. Even all these years later, I’m still in awe of them.

  5. emmar Says:

    Brilliant! This is what the public domain was invented for.

  6. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Holy shit, much. Wonderful, wonderful. Santa needs his thrown usurped, by it’s rightful owners!

  7. SaraBee Says:

    Pretend history is awesome…

  8. ri Says:

    oh! how neat!
    check this out:

    this one is a little big, here’s another that doesn’t look as good:

    meredith, i’ll bring you a dvd when i get back to oakland…

  9. Alice Says:

    So…Cthuloids are the original Santa…? I think I can live with that!

  10. Alice Says:

    Hm, it seems that squiddy fellows haven’t left the realm of holiday greeting cards, after all…

  11. Casey Bergman Says:

    Where is the evidence that backs the claim that Lovelace was Hackel’s mother?

  12. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    It’s a joke, Casey! :-D