Maria Sibylla Merian

The work of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), particularly the illustrations from her devoted study of insects, remain the standard by which contemporary artists and naturalists are judged.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany on April 2, 1647. She belonged to a very talented family of engravers and painters. Her Swiss father, Matthew Merian, was a draughtsman, printmaker, and publisher. Her older brother, also Matthew, was a successful painter. Merian's father died in 1650, when she was just three years old. Her stepfather, James Morell, was an accomplished Dutch painter, engraver, and art dealer who took on the responsibility for her education. He spent hours teaching Merian the art of flower painting. Merian developed a fascination with insects and began studying them obsessively. To her mother's displeasure, Morell encouraged this passion, which was considered to be an inappropriate subject for proper young ladies of the 17th century.

By the time she was 14, Merian left for Nuremberg to study with two famous artists, Abraham Mignon and Johann Graff. Both were former students and friends of Morell. Four years later, in 1868, Merian married Graff. They had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. Disturbed by her husband's repeated infidelity, she separated from Graff in 1685. Taking her daughters to the Netherlands, she joined her half-brother, Caspar Merian, in a communal religious sect (the Labadist community) that rejected worldly goods. By 1691, Merian obtained a divorce from Graff, rejected the Labadists, and took her daughters to Amsterdam. Merian supported her family by painting flowers, birds, and insects, teaching young women, and turning her paintings into embroidery patterns. She was even able to save enough money for a trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam in order to study insect specimens. Merian set sail in June 1699 with her daughter, Dorothea Maria. She was admired for her boldness in undertaking a dangerous three-month journey at the age of 52. The tropical paradise became her studio and laboratory. Merian and her daughter studied local customs and tried to find an economic use for their plants. She survived a bout with malaria during her time in Surinam. Frail health eventually forced an end to her two-year stay. Merian returned to Amsterdam in September 1701. Her daughter remained in Surinam for five more years to continue her mother's work.

Back in Amsterdam, Merian set about her monumental task of putting together her book on the metamorphoses of the exotic Surinam insects. In his entry on Merian, Ludwig said that, "she employed professional engravers for the large-sized plates done after her paintings." Ludwig went on to note that, "She wrote the descriptions herself, but the director of the Amsterdam botanical garden, Caspar Commelin, determined the species of the plants. The appearance of the Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium, in 1705 caused a sensation. The beautiful, life-size plates showed the exotic insects in previously unpublished states and in their natural surroundings. The 62 plates and the careful descriptions kindled the imagination of natural history collectors, who knew the species only from dried specimen." Merian was the first to record such observations on insect metamorphosis. According to Haley and Steele in 1843, nearly 150 years following the book's publication, Jardine wrote in The Naturalists Library, that Merian's pictures "have not been surpassed by any works of art of a similar description, by the moderns, to whom her method of arranging and combining her figures may serve as a lesson. Her manner of introducing the insects in their various stages of metamorphosis, in connection with the plants upon which they feed, is, in our opinion, not only very instructive but extremely elegant, and her skill in composition has almost invariably led her to do this in an artist-like pleasing way." Merian did not simply paint her subjects. Her interest in the work led her to collect and breed her own collection in order to study and paint them.

The last years of Merian's life had been devoted to her work, The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and their Singular Plant Nourishment, in a two-volume Dutch edition. Merian died of a stroke in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea Maria sold all of her mother's work to Johannes Oosterwijk, a publisher in Amsterdam. In 1717, Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, bought 300 of her paintings and opened the first art museum in Russia in order to display them. At the time of her death, Merian had been working on 12 drawings for publication, which were added to her work on the insects of Surinam, and published by her daughter in 1719. A second edition, with text in Latin, French, and Dutch, followed in 1726.

Scientific Notoriety

When Merian published her major work, Wonderful Transformation and Singular Flower-Food of Caterpillars, in 1679, the scientific community began to take serious notice of her work. She had already published a two-volume book called Florum Fasciculi tres, and was considered to be an accomplished artist. Yet Wonderful Transformation was the book that "revolutionized zoology and botany," according to a profile from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. With 50 copperplate engravings in each of the two volumes, the book "catalogued 186 European moths, butterflies, and other insects showing on a single page each insect in all stages of metamorphosis, on or near the single plant upon which it fed and laid its eggs." According to Heidrun Ludwig, in Dictionary of Women Artists, her accomplishments were recognized for their scientific importance in her lifetime and throughout the 18th century. However, by the 19th and early 20th centuries, Merian was regarded with an "image of a harmless and gentle flower painter, adsorbed in the meditation of butterflies and flowers." Her merits as a natural historian were concealed. By the end of the 20th century that view had undergone a further transformation and her work was judged in a broader context. Today, Merian's works are on display around the world, from London to St. Petersburg, as well as in museums throughout the United States. Her careful attention to detail and keen observation help to explain why her paintings continue to received this acclaim.

Further Reading on Maria Sibylla Merian

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dictionary of Women Artists, edited by Delia Gaze, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Natural History, December 1992.

Center for Global Environmental Education, Hamline University, St. Paul, MN. "Maria Sibylla Merian," 1999. Available at: http://cgee.hamline.edu/see/mariasyblla/seeanmerian.html.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, 1993. Available at: http://web2.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw.

Haley and Steele. "Maria Sibylla Merian." Available at: http://www.haleysteele.com/exhibition/wbi/merian.html. National Museum of Women in the Arts. "Maria Sibylla Merian."Available at: http://www.nmwa.org/legacy/bios.

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