INTREPID TRAVELLER: Maria Sibylla Merian
As a successful artist, scientist, explorer, businesswoman, wife and mother, Merian would be considered exceptional in any age – but her story is truly amazing for a woman living and working in late 17th-century Europe.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a woman ahead of her time. Artist, scientist and adventurer, she was one of the first women to study the life cycles of insects – and even travelled to the Dutch African colony of Suriname to pursue her studies – in the 17th century. Theresa Thompson tells her story
Aportrait made in 1717 by Jacobus Houbraken shows a middle-aged woman in a plain green dress, red shawl and black headdress, who sits stiffly upright in a room. She is staring impassively out at the viewer, and with her arm resting on a stone ledge gestures towards a potted plant. Her firm jaw and closed mouth perhaps suggest a determined personality; otherwise, so far, so unremarkable.
Yet the truly remarkable nature of this woman is coded in the array of objects around her: books, an inkwell, quill, paintbrush, magnifying glass, drawings of insects, flowers and sea shells, and a butterfly hovering above the flowering plant. What is more, the two statuettes behind her are emblematic, one personifying Fame, the other the Dutch Republic.
The portrait is of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 - 1717), one of the most celebrated natural scientists of her age – and a woman far ahead of her time.
An astonishingly talented naturalist, entomologist and botanical artist, she was one of the first to study insects and their life cycles – and to describe butterfly metamorphosis – nine years before the first accurate descriptions were published. As a thirteen-year-old in 1660, she noted, “All caterpillars, as long as the butterflies have mated beforehand, emerge from their eggs.”
Fascinated from a young age by the flies, spiders and caterpillars she collected, she soon was challenging accepted wisdoms such as Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation (of living creatures).
There are other firsts for Merian. She was one
of the first female scientific explorers; the first to present the life cycle of insects in all stages, in full size and colour within a single painting; to picture insects on the plants they lived on; to record predatory behaviour in insects; and made the first scientific observation of camouflage in insects...
As a successful artist, scientist, explorer, businesswoman, wife and mother, Merian would be considered exceptional in any age – but her story is truly amazing for a woman living and working in late 17th-century Europe. But I jump ahead.
Born in Frankfurt, her father was the renowned illustrator Matthaeus Merian, who died when she was three; her mother Johanna married again to the artist Jacob Marrel, who specialised in flower paintings. Thus, Merian grew up surrounded by fine illustrated books from the Merian publishing house, by artists, and the dried flowers used in her stepfather’s workshop.
In the 17th- to 18th century still life painting commonly involved a vase filled with flowers, and sometimes ‘summer birds’ (butterflies) or animals were added to the composition as decoration.
But Merian was not content to paint dead insects. Curious about their lives, she began to collect caterpillars, bring them home to watch develop, and record her observations in books – always accompanied by full colour paintings.
Making thorough notes and copying them into study books became a lifelong habit. Over her
lifetime, she made 318 studies of different insects, and countless drawings of them in various stages of development, plus other animals.
Watching silkworms change from egg to larva to cocoon to moth captivated the young girl. She made a surprising decision: “I set aside my social life. I devoted all my time to these observations [of insects] and to improving my abilities in the art of painting, so I could both draw individual specimens and paint them as they were in nature.” The seeds of a life of adventure and scientific discovery were sown.
Marrying the artist Johann Andreas Graff in 1665 - first met in her step-father’s studio, when she was twelve - with whom she had daughters Dorothea and Johanna, they moved to Nuremberg where she had a garden to grow flowers and collect insects to paint. Life settled into a pattern of painting, studying, family, and business. To augment the family’s income she took in students, the daughters of wealthy families, for flower painting was expected of refined young women.
The couple bought a printing press for Graff ’s engravings (architectural and city scenes) and this enabled Merian to produce her first book of flowers for her students to copy and paint.
Other books and prints followed, made for sale, including one with the splendid title,
Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and
Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers, published in 1679. This was a scientific book, she explained, “where by means of an entirely new invention [the magnifying glass] the origin, food, and development of caterpillars, worms, butterflies, moths, flies and other such little animals... are diligently examined, briefly described, and painted from nature...”
After a move to Holland, by way of a six-year stay in Friesland at a strict religious community where her older half-brother was living, Merian once again changed her life completely. This time she moved with her daughters (but minus Graff; they divorced in 1690) to Amsterdam, then the third largest city in Europe - and crucially, a centre for art, science and publishing.
Amsterdam was perfect for her. Not only was it a bustling city of trade and commerce and so was full of people who could afford to buy art, but also women there had the legal right to own premises and run businesses.
Selling her drawings, which were by now prized for their accuracy, and trading in preserved exotic animal specimens brought into the country by Dutch merchants and seamen occupied her. Her daughters were also now earning an income from their paintings. Together they visited the city’s
Hortus Medicus (botanic garden) and saw curious and colourful tropical plants.
Many of the specimens she traded in were destined for scholarly or wealthy individuals collections across Europe – and often displayed
in ‘cabinets of curiosities’ ('wonder rooms' or ‘ wunderkammer’) which could comprise everything and anything from rocks and minerals to corals or relics, to glassy-eyed animals.
But the animal specimens that most interested her came from Suriname, a Dutch colony on the northeast coast of South America. The combined effect of all this was to galvanise her imagination and her actions. She wanted to see these ‘amazing things’ not in their dulled dead colours, but to study and paint them from life in their natural habitats.
So, in 1699, at the age of 52, she set sail for Suriname accompanied by her younger daughter Dorothea. She had contacts there in a Labadist mission (the same Protestant movement as in Friesland). Selling the contents of her studio in order to finance the trip, and having written her will, they set off.
It is almost impossible to imagine the hardships for the two women on that voyage on board an ordinary merchant ship. It was thrilling at first; they saw dolphins, turtles, the night sky flooded with stars; but tossed around by the Atlantic Ocean, trying to sleep below deck in a narrow bunk in crowded accommodation that leaked when it rained, no privacy, no washing, a monotonous diet, and the real threat of pirates as well as seasickness, it was a long two months.
But what treasures were there once they landed. And what treasures she brought back when two years later illness forced her return. Her dazzling watercolour paintings of insect, animal and plant life in Suriname brought the wonders of South America and the rainforest to 18th century European eyes. Reproduced in countless prints and books her works made her famous in her day, and accurate as they were (give or take a few mistaken identities) went on to influence generations of naturalists and artists.
So it was that settling in Paramaribo, the colony’s capital, she gloried in new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes - huge butterflies with iridescent wings, birds with stunning plumage, chattering monkeys, fragrant flowers, guava, bananas and pineapples.... Straightaway she set about planning her next book, The Insects of
Surinam, making two drawings of pineapples with attendant insects for the opening pictures.
Back then, Paramaribo was a small town of a few hundred people, who mostly came from Holland, Germany and England. Few, however, were interested in the country’s flora and fauna. Indeed, she wrote, “they mocked me for seeking something other than sugar in that country.”
She didn’t even have to leave the house to find new creatures. Cockroaches, of course, came in;
“Many are amazing things which have never been seen before,” she wrote of her travels to Suriname
blue lizard eggs were found in a corner of a room, and jewel-like hummingbirds in the garden. And her servants brought animals in for her to inspect, and told her what they knew of them. All were studied with relish under a magnifying glass and painted in exquisite detail, down to the “weirdly bristly and ugly hairs” on a moth that until magnified had looked quite attractive.
Though an able naturalist, an artist’s instincts ran in her blood, and so while her depictions retained accuracy, she also seems to have enjoyed adding a little dramatic narrative every now and then, or decorative twirls to a tail or vine or leaf.
She was in her element. But the climate was crushing. When the two women arrived it was the end of the major rainy season, with the long hot dry season about to begin. Curiosity soon drew her into the jungle, however. Trekking (in long dresses let’s not forget) through the jungle was difficult, but armed with magnifying glass and specimen pots, her ventures rendered magnificent bounty.
One time she found “a lovely, large red caterpillar, which had on each segment three blue beads...” and rearing it back home, although unsure if she had
found it the right food, two weeks later a “beautiful”, “gleaming” butterfly emerged. Her stunning illustration of the Idomeneus Giant Owl Butterfly shows it in its stages of metamorphosis on a sprig of Cardinal's Guard.
They visited sugar plantations to search for insects, and were shocked by the numbers of slaves and harsh conditions. Planters in Suriname grew mainly sugar, but also coffee, cocoa and cotton, and to work their plantations they brought across slaves from Africa, and tried to enslave the native Caribs and Arawaks.
Her studies were not limited to insects, however, as the more than a dozen species of insects, animals and plants, and a genus of mantises named after her testify. (Sarah Pomeroy and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby’s book lists them - see box - for example, the orchid bee is Eulaema meriana). Her painting of the Suriname toad (also called
Pipa pipa) swimming past partially submerged Shoreline Purslane shows a female of this rather flat, odd looking creature carrying her clutch of fertilised eggs on her back followed by fully formed offspring. Merian was the first to describe this animal’s strange reproductive process.
The brutal equatorial sun and conditions eventually got the better of her, and they returned to Amsterdam. She arrived home a celebrity, eagerly awaited for tales of her dangerous journey, and for her drawings and myriad specimens (preserved and alive). All in all, it was a tough expedition. She wrote: “I almost had to pay for it with my life.”
As soon as she recovered, she set about the enormous task of publishing the results of her Suriname research aided by her daughters and a team of assistants. Her book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname) was published in Latin and Dutch in 1705. It included 60 large plates, and scientific observations from her study book notes.
By the time of her death aged 69, she was fêted throughout Europe as an entomologist and an artist. Years later when Linnaeus was devising his binomial system of species classification (published 1735, 1753), which became the world’s scientific standard, he relied on Merian’s drawings for the plants and insects of the Suriname
rainforest. The book is considered her greatest achievement. It is one of the most beautiful books of natural history ever made. Luxury versions of plates from The Insects
of Suriname entered some of the world’s great collections, including Peter the Great’s in Russia and George III in England for his scientific library at Buckingham House (these are now part of the Royal Collection).
Merian died in Amsterdam on 13 January 1717 and was buried four days later at Leidse kerkhof. Although fêted throughout Europe, the death register lists her as a pauper. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.
Left: Duroia eriopila, plate XLIII from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium
Left: Gun Powder Storage building (1778) of Fort New Amsterdam (1734) on the riverbank where the Commewijne River and Suriname River meet, near Paramaribo, Suriname, SouthAmerica
Above, right: Coloured copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorumSurinamensium, Plate XLIII. "Spiders, ants and hummingbird on a branch of a guava"
Above: A page from Maria Sibylla Merian, Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium (Amsterdam, 1719) (Arch. Nat.hist. E 10, leaf 8). Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford