Embryos in art. For most readers and listeners Haeckel’s embryos were both evidence of the past and full of promise for a bright future, but anatomical museums already placed human embryo and fetus in a darker frame. During the 1890s they entered the disconcerting and sometimes even nightmarish world of symbolist or ‘decadent’ Art. A group of French printmakers and especially the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley appropriated normal and monstrous fetuses to comment on such fin-de-sičcle concerns as the declining birth rate and degeneration, to oppose feminism and more generally to thematize creative as well as procreative failure.

Visual culture

Haeckel’s embryos were just the most controversial images in a larger visual culture of evolutionism.

Haeckel and his allies insisted from the 1860s that anyone who wished to progress in step with civilization had to learn about embryos. Association with sex had previously tended to restrict embryology to medical institutions, with only limited opportunities for laypeople to see pictures, models and specimens in books, lectures and museums. Now, innovations in printing and museums appealingly took the science to ever larger middle-class audiences and, by the early twentieth century, to working-class audiences too.

Evolutionists faced political and religious opposition, and charges of offending public decency. But Haeckel countered the argument that animal ancestry demeaned human beings by claiming that what mattered was how far we had come and would go. He set up a veritable cult of the supposedly ancestral amphioxus and the hypothetical gastraea. From the 1870s, illustrations of human embryos were cheap, prominent and proper enough to enter family magazines and encyclopędias. Pictures of aborted fetuses were sufficiently improper to appeal to symbolist printmakers and artists, but as ‘art forms in nature’ Haeckel’s marine invertebrates were popular patterns for art nouveau architecture and design.

Haeckel’s visual armamentarium, 1907


Colour lithograph of human embryos in an encyclopędia, 1890