Gustav Klimt & the Evolutionary Monism of Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century zoologist and proponent of Darwinism developed evolutionary monism, a universalist philosophy that tried to solve the problem of a “mechanic-like” world and surprisingly influenced Viennese art.

Feb 1, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art
gustav klimt monism of ernst haeckel


Science and art are conventionally seen as two different fields of human activity and ingenuity. As if not from the same culture and people, they are sometimes viewed as opposites. Perhaps this is best represented by our common surface notion of the function of two (cerebral) hemispheres of the brain. Though disproven as a myth (Nielsen, 2013), we still sometimes think of analytical people as left-brained and creative ones as right-brained. Surprisingly, the late 19th-century scholars didn’t see a clear division between the two fields, so art and science mutually influenced new discoveries. As an interesting example, zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s philosophy of evolutionary monism can be found in the art of the Viennese Secession and its leader, Gustav Klimt.


Ernst Haeckel’s Evolutionary Monism

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Ernst Haeckel by Nicola Perscheid, 1908, via British Museum, London


Ernst Haeckel was a 19th-century German zoologist and one of the most influential proponents of Darwinism of his time. During his scientific career, Haeckel proposed new notions of human evolution, made strides in the problems of heredity, and coined many terms used in biology today, like ecology, phylum, and phylogeny.


The contemporary scientific community wasn’t interested in his works, but they were nonetheless popular with the broader public. In his books published in the 1890s, Die Weltrathsel (The Riddle of the Universe) and Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), he culminated a four-decades-long scientific endeavor by presenting evolution as a worldview capable of answering metaphysical questions.


In Die Weltrathsel, Haeckel fully elaborated his concept of monism as a pantheistic religion of nature predicated on recent discoveries in natural sciences. Haeckel’s monism offered a belief in an interconnected universe in which spirit is immanent in matter. He introduced his evolutionary monism as a reform and a replacement for any deity, ushering the way to the term Monistic Religion. Ernst Haeckel’s Monism transformed Darwinism from a process of random selection and competition to an ordered unity of nature in which man was part of a universal chain of being. Monism postulated the oneness of matter and spirit governed by the immutable mechanical law of substance. Darwin’s theory of evolution enabled Haeckel to draw a network of kinship across organisms from a primitive protoplasm called monera to plants and animals.


Evolutionary Monism & Austria

portrait of ernst haeckel
Portrait of Ernst Haeckel, 1900, via British Museum, London

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Both of Haeckel’s books, together with the work of Wilhelm Bolsche, Liebesleben in der Natur (Love-Life in Nature) published in 1898, opened a new view of the world and furthered the reach of monism. Thanks to evolutionary monism, which fused the body and the soul, the world came alive as a spiritually and sexually charged whole. Haeckel’s view incorporated the belief in sentient matter predicated on the theorized existence of a cell soul. Haeckel defined God as the sum of natural forces, fused science and theology, mind and body, feeling and reason. In his view of the world, nature was no longer reduced to soulless materialism.


The idea that the mind and body were fused intrigued a new generation of Symbolist and Jugendstil artists, from Edvard Munch to Hermann Obrist. The most fertile ground for its influence was Austria, where a long cultural tradition led to the loss of clarity between the categories of physical and metaphysical and the flesh and spirit. In Vienna, the advocates of rationalism, positivism, and Darwinism were outnumbered by a new generation of artists pursuing a more instinctive, emotional, and mystical side of human nature.


Despite being more inspired by the irrational parts of the human psyche, the new generation did remain loyal to the findings of contemporary science. They were led by the artists of the Vienna Secession, who were the first to create works inspired by Darwinism.


Ernst Haeckel & Artistic Circles in Vienna

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Adam and Eve by Gustav Klimt, 1917/1918, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna


Ernst Haeckel had both personal and professional ties to Austria. He was offered a position at the University of Vienna in 1870 and kept correspondence with a group of Darwinists in the city. In 1878, he held two lectures in Vienna, which popularized him in Austria and inspired some of the leading figures of the scientific circles to advocate a monist worldview.


In Austrian art circles, monism caught ground first in the stories of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and in the group Jung-Wien (Young Vienna). By the end of the 19th century, it spread to the visual arts as well, visible in the work of the Vienna Secession since its foundation in 1897. The journal of the Secession, Ver Sacrum, was abounding with nature-based images, such as the prehistoric fantasy dinosaurs drawn by Rudolf Bacher, and monist-inspired poems, such as those of Rainer Maria Rilke. Like some other artists of the era, Gustav Klimt created art nurtured by their communion with nature, developed a stylistic technique that evoked characteristics of evolution, and addressed monist unity, animal drives, and procreation.


Gustav Klimt’s Philosophy

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Philosophy (destroyed) by Gustav Klimt, 1900, via


Through Gustav Klimt, Darwinism became the center of artistic controversy through the exhibition of Klimt’s mural Philosophy (1899-1907). Philosophy was supposed to be one of the three paintings done for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. According to the catalog of the 7th Secessionist exhibition, Philosophy represented: “On the left: genesis, reproduction, decay. On the right: the globe of the world, the riddle of the universe. Rising from below: the illuminated figure of knowledge.”


Critics immediately related the painting to a new worldview of Darwinism, monism, and theosophy. For many people in Germany and Austria, the distinctions between monism and theosophy were not as clear, especially since the theosophist Rudolf Steiner had written an essay defending Haeckel. Darwin and Haeckel were referenced through a narrative in which mortality and suffering are offset by species survival, represented by an isolated, floating baby. The depicted cosmos of pulsating lights, shooting stars, and coalescing forms recall Haeckel’s descriptions of “vibrating ether atoms,” “rotating nebulous,” and the presence of unifying energy. In Klimt’s Philosophy, the mysteries of the world could no longer be solved without the consideration of evolutionary realities.


Gustav Klimt’s Medicine

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Medicine (destroyed) by Gustav Klimt, 1900, via


Gustav Klimt used the same “cosmological perspective” for the second of his paintings done for the University of Vienna in 1907. Medicine is dominated by the figure of the goddess Hygeia, herself a product of evolutionary transformation, born from a swamp in the form of a snake.


Charles Darwin’s and Ernst Haeckel’s themes are encoded in the figures of a primeval couple, with the male’s body covered in fur. Other elements of evolutionary monism are represented by the pair of wrestlers in an evolutionary “struggle for survival” and the cyclical motifs of death and procreation.


Medicine reflects an awareness of embryonic illustrations in Ernst Haeckel’s books and his biogenetic law. Also, Klimt’s images of maternity recall passages from Haeckel’s Die Weltrathsel. Haeckel writes:


“… our own human nature… sinks to the level of a placental mammal, which has no more value for the universe at large than the ant. … Humanity is but transitory phase of the evolution of an eternal substance … the true proportion of which we soon perceive when we set it on the background of infinite space and eternal time.”


Klimt’s Underwater Paintings

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Water Serpents I (Friends) by Gustav Klimt, via Belvedere Museum, Vienna


Ernst Haeckel’s presence in the works of Gustav Klimt is perhaps more obvious in his underwater paintings, like Water Serpents II. In his mythological and eroticized aquatic scenes, one recognizes Bolsche’s descriptions of the ocean as a primordial erogenous zone, alive with the desire that fuels evolution and ripples the universe. In Das Liebesleben in der Natur, he writes that the water teems with:


“… infinite life, trees rising from the coral depths, covered … with the greedy orange-yellow mouths of polyps, darting silvery fish, and … the medusa, the most enchanted of all children of the sea… Myriads of quivering souls, … All in one vast chain of life, one vast chain of love.”


His painting Water Serpents I (Friends) recapitulates evolution thematically from cell to plant to fish, reptiles, and the emerging woman. The hybrid forms and collage-like fragments are stylistically reassembled into a monistic whole. The palette and sinuous contours echo the curvilinear forms and jewel-hued richness of Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations in Kunstformen der Natur. They demonstrate Bolsche’s rhythmic ornamental principle, according to which beauty evolves through sexual selection and the universe is morphologically linked by a “world arabesque.” Bolsche explored these ideas in his illustrated article The Line of Beauty in Nature, published in Wiener Mode, a fashion magazine with which Klimt was familiar.


Klimt’s The Kiss

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1908, via Belvedere Musem, Vienna


Even some of Gustav Klimt’s most popular works show the influence of Ernst Haeckel’s evolutionary monism. The Kiss was painted in 1908, and after its first exhibition, it was immediately bought by the ministry of education for the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. The Kiss shows a strain in the relationship between the sexes at the turn of the 20th century. But besides its typical art historical interpretations, The Kiss is never considered in much broader terms of Viennese culture and its Darwinist elements.


Klimt conveys monist unity through his decorative patterns, themselves based on the shared biological and microscopic forms of cells and tissues. The Kiss exemplifies an Eros-generated spirit and represents the cellular affinity or “sexual cell-love” that Ernst Haeckel regarded as the source of life and the human soul. They demonstrate the same fundamental forces of attraction at work in amorous desire, magnetism, and chemical bonding. As such, Klimt’s figures in The Kiss, positioned at the juncture of earth and cosmos, bear witness to a monist universe of Haeckel’s “star world” and “cell world” in which procreation “regulated your position in the solar system and the fate of your spermatozoa.”

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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.