Monday, February 7, 2022

Maria Sibylla Merian

As the step-granddaughter of Johann Theodor de Bry and the daughter of the well-known engraver Matthaus Merian the elder, and then step-daughter of botanical artist Jacob Marrel, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was well suited to become one of the most notable natural history print-makers of either sex. Known not only as an accomplished artist, but also as a respected entomologist. Merian was the first to illustrate the full metamorphoses of many species of butterflies and moths, but her 1699-1701 scientific expedition to South America is one of the most extraordinary stories from the early days of scientific exploration.

From an early age, Maria collected and drew images of insects, taking the innovative approach of looking at the full lifecycle of her subjects. After marrying Johann Andreas Graff, one of Marrel’s apprentices, Maria achieved success as a flower painter and engraver, producing three books of flower prints between 1675 and 1680. Her interest in entomology continued and between 1679 and 1683, she produced Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung, [The Caterpillar’s wondrous metamorphosis and extraordinary nourishment from flowers], which were well received.

Then in 1685, Merian converted to communistic sect of Labadism and left her husband, Johann Graff, moving with her two daughters to the Labadist colony in Holland. This was located in the castle of the Governor of the Dutch Colony of Surinam (Guiana), whose cabinet of exotic butterflies sparked Merian’s imagination to the extent that in 1669, at the age of fifty-two, she set off, with her youngest daughter Dorothea, to study the insects and flora of Surinam.

After two years in the wilderness, recording her observations of plants and the transformations of the native insects, Merian returned to Europe where, in 1705, she produced her important masterpiece, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

This magnificent work documented the insects of Surinam in their full life cycles, each shown with a native plant upon which it lived. The plates blended entomological and botanical elements with an exquisite decorative appearance, providing for Europeans the first extensive visual record of the exotic colors and forms of the plant and insect life of South America, documenting many of the subjects for the first time.

In 1712, Merian began an expanded, Dutch edition of her earlier book on European insects, but this was not completed, for sadly, while in Surinam Maria had contracted a tropical illness, from which she never recovered. In 1715, she suffered a stroke and died in poverty two years later. However, her two daughters worked to complete this work, which was completed in 1717, appearing later in Latin and French editions, the last in 1730.

With all these wonderful volumes, Merian’s work, both as science and art, lives on. In 1991, Germany issued a 500 Deutschemark bill with her likeness on is, and in 2005 named its state-of-the-art research ship the RV Maria S. Merian in her honor.

Original, antique prints from Merian's publications are rare, but they can still be acquired at reasonable prices. They are a tremendous legacy of this remarkable woman anturalist.

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