Arnold Böcklin and Darwinism in Germany: The Fabulous Beasts

Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin offers an opportunity to consider the implications of Darwinism’s importance for 19th-century art and its iconography.

Feb 4, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art

arnold bocklin and darwinism


At the intersection of 19th-century science and art stands the figure of Arnold Böcklin. The Swiss-born artist followed in the footsteps of artists, who infused classical motifs with ideologies ranging from French Revolutionary propaganda, Romantic melancholy, and archeological erudition. Böcklin represented another position among this group that was giving a vision of classical antiquity better fit for contemporary audiences in the 19th century. As such, his transformation of the classical pantheon must be considered in the context of the history of science. The visual bestiary he was able to build was based both on the concrete and metaphorical implications of the Darwinian discourse. In his own artistic way, Arnold Böcklin was visualizing the issue of how to depict the Darwinian Man and the missing links of human evolution.


Darwinism in Germany

photograph of charles darwin
Portrait of Charles Darwin by Ernest H. Edwards, 1868, via Getty Museum, Los Angeles


The first German translation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1860, less than a year after it was published in Britain. The quick acceptance of the Darwinist worldview in Germany is explained by the region’s intellectual history. Similar ideas have already been suggested in the German-speaking world, which predisposed it to adopt the new theory. The ideas of transmutation have already been shown in the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


The first admirers of Darwin in Germany, H. G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and August Schleicher, were also his first fervent critics and contributors to his new vision of the world. Bronn, himself a paleontologist, observed that Darwin showed only that transmutation of species was possible, without presenting any actual evidence. A mistake that was solved by Haeckel, a medical doctor who, through his study of sponges, believed to have given evidence of the natural origin of these transformed invertebrates.


Beyond the scientific circles, Darwinist ideas grew ever more popular. After its emergence in Germany, Darwinism was quickly accepted as a kind of popular philosophy. The term “struggle for life,” part of the subtitle to On the Origins of Species had penetrated the collective consciousness. Not only did Darwinism permeate scientific disciplines, but made its presence felt in classical studies, literature, and art theory.

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Arnold Böcklin’s Interest in Darwinism

arnold bocklin self portrait with death reproduction
Reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s Self Portrait, 1933, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


In the case of no diary, letters with barely any details, and no personal library, little is known of Arnold Böcklin’s personal interests. Some information provided by his students and early biographers points to the idea that Böcklin was a keen naturalist. Carus Sterne, one of Darwin’s staunchest advocates in Germany, recognized that many hybrid creatures Böcklin painted owed much to recent advances in morphology and anatomy.


In his 1890 essay, “Arnold Böcklin’s Mythical Beings in Light of Organic Morphology,” Sterne belittled those who objected to disparities between Böcklin’s composite creatures and traditional representations of mythical beings in art.


In 1901, on the occasion of the artist’s death, Henriette Mendelsohn closes Böcklin’s biography by discussing his hybrid creatures and their relation to Darwinism. She writes: “And even if Böcklin’s figures are not validly patterned illustrations of the selection of art, his creations are the artistic outcome of the spirit of the great natural scientist.” The last reference undoubtedly points to Charles Darwin, but the phrase “selection of art” seems to refer to the French historian Hippolyte Taine’s response to Darwin’s ideas as they related to the development of art. On the 100th anniversary of Böcklin’s birth, the critic Jarl Scheffler wrote: “… he is the painter and poet of Darwinism, it is difficult to understand what is belittling about that!”


The Beasts of Arnold Böcklin

arnold bocklin head of medusa
Medusa’s Head by Arnold Böcklin, 1897, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Up to date on the latest debates about the origin of man, Böcklin developed an aesthetic that was completely contrary to the prevailing trends and traditions in art. Though he had detailed markings, colors, and forms of his creatures, they rarely actually existed in nature. On the other hand, he did not follow the classical myths and their descriptions of mythical creatures. Both of these facts lead him to great criticism in artistic circles.


Anti-mimetic and trans-mutative in essence, many of Böcklin’s paintings after 1871 address a fundamental problem sparked by Darwinian evolutionary schemes: how to make visible the continuum of nature disrupted and obscured by a series of catastrophic geological and meteorological events. The painter’s answer was to bring in the monsters. More precisely put, Böcklin’s paintings show phases of the evolutionary continuum for which there are no surviving fossil remains. His monsters suggest a part of nature’s chains and links that were not destined to survive.


Centaur: A Man-Animal Hybrid

arnold bocklin centaur and blacksmith
Centaur at the Village Blacksmith by Arnold Böcklin, 1888, via National Gallery of Hungary, Budapest


The anatomy of classical beasts granted Böcklin an entire stockpile of animal appendages onto the human body, facilitating a repertoire of man-animal hybrids used for creating a Darwinian man. This idea is best exemplified by Böcklin’s centaurs, half-man, half-horse creatures from Greek mythology. The figure of a centaur was considered in the 19th century to harbor the “two souls of man.” They expressed the dual nature of mankind, its animal impulses together with the soaring advancement of his spirit. Centaurs were embedded deeper in Nature and often referred to as Tiermenschen or Pferdemenschen.


Böcklin’s centaurs are always cast in an unflattering light, as they contain features such as weight gain, hair loss, pare or irregular pigmentation, and aging; all of the things that, as time goes on, we all work hard to disguise. His subjects are middle-aged, average, and demystified. Centaurs are overweight men whose movement is restricted by their voluminous bellies. Some of them, engaged in battle, seethe and spit with fury, with eyeballs bulging with rage. Critics were quick to note such “embarrassing details,” interpreting them as self-caricature and an indication that Böcklin didn’t have money to pay for more attractive models.


The Birth of Venus (Venus Anadyomene)

arnold bocklin birth of venus
Venus Anadyomene by Arnold Böcklin, 1872, via Saint Louis Art Museum


Arnold Böcklin made several versions of the classical theme of the Birth of Venus, one of the most popular motifs in art history since the Renaissance. According to the traditional account, after Venus was born, she rode on a seashell and sea foam to the island of Cyprus.


After some criticism of his earlier versions from the cultural historian and friend Joachim Burckhardt, Böcklin painted Venus Anadyomene in 1872. In this version, Böcklin included a “dolphin,” a standard iconographical element of the scene, giving it a more Darwinist twist. The huge sea creature that brings Venus to the surface is more of an aquatic monster, bearing little resemblance to the dolphins associated with Venus in the annals of art history.


The anti-traditional change to a standard theme may be owed to recent discussions on the origin of life. While staying in Munich at the time, Arnold Böcklin may have come into the contact with the work of Carl du Prel, a young Darwinist and mystic philosopher. Du Prel’s collection of essays, Der Kampf uns Dasein am Himmel, was published in 1874. Another artist among scientists in 1870s Munich who Böcklin admired was Gabriel von Max. Max’s Darwinian leanings would be sustained throughout his long career and may have influenced Böcklin.


Triton and Nereid

arnold bocklin triton and nereide
Triton and Nereid by Arnold Böcklin, 1874, via


The painting Triton and Nereid was created between 1873 and 1874 and quickly became one of Böcklin’s most popular paintings. The theme is mythological in its title, presenting us with a minor sea god and a sea nymph. It seems to be more about mankind’s origins and evolution than a mythological representation.


The alert head and pulsating body of the swimming snake subtly evoke ideas that Darwin advanced in 1871 in The Descent of Man, which Böcklin may have come by the same year when it was translated into German. The “female” reptile in Böcklin’s painting seems attracted to the Triton playing notes, echoing Darwin’s idea of musical tones giving pleasure of some kind to animals. The Nereid, too, seems entranced by the music, swooning as she lies on her back, even suggesting the readiness to mate with her body posture. Meanwhile, Triton blows his conch-like shell – a form that suggests another genital region. With this painting, Böcklin alludes to the role played by sexual selection in the survival and evolution of species.


The representatives of different developmental epochs, another Darwinist theme is seen in the relations among the creatures. In this case, Triton being a half-fish, half-man, is a missing link in an evolutionary chain leading to the emergence of man. The human-like Nereid who sprawls beside him is his closest “relative.”


The Play of the Naiads

arnold bocklin game of the naiads
Play of the Naiads by Arnold Böcklin, 1886, via


In this painting, the nine naiads (nymphs of rivers, streams, lakes, marshes, fountains, and springs) frolic among the rocks, each with a different fishtail. Their pectoral, dorsal, and caudal fins derive from species such as dolphins, whales, salmon, marlin, seals, and goldfish. We not only see detailed views of parts of these (then) rare fish but also see them assembled in highly artificial groupings.


The invention of the aquarium in the 19th century opened up a whole new view of marine life that Arnold Böcklin used in his working process and incorporated into his imagery. Böcklin’s use of the aquarium may also have been inspired by science enthusiasts of the time, such as Karl Mobius, who encouraged artists as well as laymen to improve their understanding of marine life with frequent visits. He may have also been encouraged by his lifelong friend and the student of Ernst Haeckel, Anton Dohrn. Dohrn was the mastermind behind Naples’ aquarium, the Stazione Zoologica, which was conceived with overtly Darwinist propaganda and actually realized only thanks to Darwin’s own financial backing. This helped enhance the realism of Böcklin’s animals and creatures while arousing distress among scientists. Emil du Bois Reymond, an eminent physiologist, was disgusted at Böcklin’s representations of mermaids with a naturalistic tail of a salmon.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.