Her family and other animals
Clive Aslet delights in the entomological art of a pioneering 17th-century naturalist-explorer
Gardeners, look away now. There are caterpillars in this exhibition. They’re shown munching their way through their food plants, marked by gaping holes in the leaves, but, just as ugly ducklings can turn into beautiful swans (in the song, at least), so papilionid larvae do sometimes produce radiant adults—the Menelaus blue morpho butterfly, the idomeneus giant owl butterfly and zebra swallowtail butterfly, as well as the somewhat less ambitiously named flannel moth and snout moth.
‘Clearly, captive and dead specimens did not satisfy her’
These were the subject of Maria Merian’s colourful studies, a selection of which is on show in The Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood Palace in edinburgh. Made in the decades either side of 1700, they were compiled as books of engravings, although those in the royal Collection come from a luxury set, lightly printed and then hand-coloured on vellum.
Merian herself could not have been accused of butterfly tendencies. To judge from the portrait engraving, her knobbly face resembled the citron fruit on which she depicts the monkey slug moth and harlequin beetle feasting. This is someone who took joy in the wonders of creation, but disdained the vanities of the world.
Born into an artistic family in Frankfurt—her father (who died when Merian was three) was a successful printmaker, her step-father a flower painter— she married the watercolour painter Johann andreas Graff. By 1685, the marriage had broken down and Merian entered a Labadist community, a group subscribing to the teachings of Jean de Labadie, which preached self-denial.
When the community broke up six years later, Merian and her daughters settled in amsterdam, then in its heyday as a centre of trade and intellectual activity. The city was also home to some of the greatest botanists, collectors and flower painters of the age. The Labadists had connections with surinam, the colony that a dutch fleet seized from the British in 1667; as a result, she had seen a number of exotic creatures already.
amsterdam introduced her to more, if only in the form of their skins: the unconvincing pose of her toucan, for example, suggests that she did not have a live one before her when drawing it. Clearly, captive and dead specimens did not satisfy her because, in 1699, she herself set out for surinam.
This would have been extraordinary in itself, given the primi- tive conditions that Merian and her accompanying daughter, dorothea, would face there; the climate was sweltering. But even more notable was her method. Back to those caterpillars: Merian did not merely observe her insect subjects minutely, but showed them in the different stages of their life cycle, together with the plants that fed them.
she had already developed this approach, publishing a book
on insect metamorphosis called (in translation) The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and their Particular Plant
Nourishment in 1679, with a second volume in 1683. Surinam opened a new vista of possibility.
Already familiar with the Surinam toad, she could now show it in a habitat composed of shoreline pursilane and become the first European naturalist to describe its manner of reproduction. The female toad carries her fertilised eggs beneath pockets of skin on her back; the eggs turn into tadpoles, then little toads, which, when large enough, break through the skin and swim away.
The melantho tigerwing butterfly is shown having made a hearty meal of the leaves of a sour guava, which is hardly surprising given the size of the grub (Merian liked to show her subjects at life size when possible). She rejected the idea that the red spots on its black-and-white body are eyes, because, if so, it could have seen food from behind, a phenomenon she had never observed.
Occasionally, this austere woman let her hair down. She enjoyed www.countrylife.co.uk eating a ripe pineapple (as did the caterpillar of the dido longwing butterfly), although some of the hairs stuck in her throat. And, occasionally, she included animals just for the fun of it, such as the sky-blue rainbow whiptail lizard in her plate of the teucer owl butterfly on a banana. A spectacled caiman does battle with a fantastically red and curling false coral snake: this was to have been one of a series of plates of lizards, never completed.
Did it puzzle the intensely religious Merian that the exotic creatures that she studied with such fascination are not mentioned in Genesis? ‘Maria Merian’s Butterflies’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, until July 23 (030–3123 7306; www.royalcollection.org.uk)
Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly (1702–3) shows the insect’s lifecycle
Above left: Pineapple with Cockroaches (1702–3). Above right: Cassava with White Peacock Butterfly and Young Golden Tegu
Common or Spectacled Caiman with South American False Coral Snake (1705–10)