The Mysterious Maria Sibylla Merian

The German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who lived in the 17th and early 18th century, was not only an excellent illustrator, painter and engraver but also one of the first entomologists studying and painting the full metamorphosis of insects.

She was a fascinating person: as a young girl she stole her neighbours tulips to paint them, collected and kept insects even though they were thought of as disgusting things that were born out of dirt. She had two daughters and yet managed to illustrate an incredible amount of species, she divorced her husband and at 52 got the permission to travel to Suriname to research tropical nature. Her life was quite eventful and as a woman in science in the 1600’s she still is an inspiration to many scientists and artists until this day.

She was born on the 2nd of April 1647 in Frankfurt am Main. Her father Matthäus Merian was known for his copperplate engravings; his works mainly included illustrations of towns. In his life he published a series of Topographia in a multi-volume series of books known as Topographia Germaniae. After Matthäus Merian’s death, Maria’s mother Johanna Sibylla Heim married the painter Jacob Marrel. He was the one who encouraged and trained his wife’s daughter as a painter of flowers and insects. Looking at his paintings one can easily observe the striking resemblance with Maria Sibylla’s works.

Before he got married, Jacob Marrel was actually a student of the famous still life painter Georg Flegel. Georg Flegel was an excellent flower painter. Interestingly enough many of his paintings include insects. Thus one can retrace where Marrel’s and later also his stepdaughter’s choice of motif partly has its origins. (left: a painting by Marrel, right: a painting by Flegel)

Maria Sibylla completed her first entomological studies of the development and metamorphosis of the silk worm when she was only 13 years old.

Maria got married to her stepfather’s pupil Johann Andreas Graff: a painter, a copperplate engraver and publisher from Nürnberg. Her daughters Johanna and Dorothea were born in 1668 & 1678. They moved to Nürnberg where Maria worked as a flower painter and a teacher in embroidery and painting. She published an ornamental and pattern book called New Book of Flowers in 1675.

In 1679 Maria published her first entomological study, which originally has an incredibly long title but usually is shortened to The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food. (which still is quite long but nothing compared to the actual title.)

Maria Sibylla managed to be a housewife, mother, artist and teacher all at once. She always continued to breed her own insects, collected local caterpillars and observed their metamorphoses. Something I personally find quite wonderful is how she called butterflies ‘summer-birds’.

Her caterpillar book was actually breaking new scientific ground, never before had any naturalist documented metamorphoses in such detail and at the same time noted the correlations between plants and insects. Below you can see two examples of her illustrations, both showing a plant and different stages of a beetle and a moth.

Maria worked after a painting teacher in Frankfurt. Alongside she also traded painting utensils and continued her caterpillar studies. In 1683 she was able to publish her second book on caterpillars. Maria got divorced around 1686 and found refuge in a religious community with her two daughters and her mother. Her husband married again later in life. After Maria's mother passed away, she decided to move to Amsterdam.

Merian might have been very much driven by her faith. In the preface of her caterpillar book she wrote: “Do not seek herein my glory / but that of God / to praise / Him / as Creator of even these small and most humble worms; / for they spring not from themselves / but from God.” However in her later works there is no mention of God.

In 1699 Maria Sibylla was permitted an excursion to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America with her daughter Dorothea Maria. There she created paintings for the book The Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, which she published 4 years after returning to Amsterdam in 1701. She opened a shop where she sold specimens she had collected during her travels. Meanwhile she continued to work on the third volume of her caterpillar book. Around 1715 she suffered from a stoke and died January 13th 1717. The last volume of her caterpillar book was published posthumously.

lluminated Copper-engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate VI. 1705)

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