Art Forms from the Abyss by Ernst Haeckel

013There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man.  It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible. ~~ Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Ernst Haeckel ( 1834 – 1919) was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, professor and artist who discovered thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined man biological terms.  He popularized Darwin’s work in Germany and used ilustration to help people visual minute forms of life.

Prestel Books has printed a series of books on his art, the latest of which, Art Forms from the Abyss, feature images from HMS Challenger Expedition.  Compiled and written by Peter J. le B. Williams, Dylan W. Evans, David J. Roberts, and David N Thomas, it aims to keep Haeckel’s artistic legacy alive.


This new collection features startlingly beautiful images created by Haeckel for the report of the HMS Challenger expedition, which circumnavigated the world from 1872–76, discovering and cataloging nearly 5,000 new species from the depths of Earth’s oceans.


Divided into three sections— Siphonophores, Medusae, and Radiolarians—these illustrations display Haeckel’s remarkable artistic skill and understanding of the architecture of organic matter.

The authors provide a brief history of the Challenger expedition, background on Haeckel’s scientific and artistic accomplishments, and information on each group of organisms.


In Haeckel’s life, there was debate on whether or not there was life in the ocean’s depths.  His work helped dispel that myth and his illustrations gave people a way of understanding the range unseen life.


The book’s introduction provides great insight into Haeckel’s life and the times in which he worked.  There’s a discussion of style, and the romanticism that influenced illustration style of the time.  There’s great information on how illustrations were finished and embellished.



The “wow” factor of this book is over the top.  I spent a lot of time studying the drawings while I was recovering from surgery.  The thought of unseen little creatures living all around us may be a bit scary when you’re sick.


But the beauty of these illustrations was so elevating that I rarely related it back to germs that might want to attack me.  This book emphasizes the  wonder of it all.


If you ever weary of the big world of strife and politics, or feel devoid of inspiration, spend some time with this book.  Nature’s adaptations and abstractions should help you get your perspective back.



The authors have a website Silent Plankton that features not only the works of Haeckel, but also contemporary “plankton inspired art.”  It’s fascinating stuff.


You can find Prestel’s other collections of Haeckel’s art on their website here.


Thanks for reading my blog.


2 thoughts on “Art Forms from the Abyss by Ernst Haeckel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s