IN­TREPID TRAV­ELLER: Maria Sibylla Me­rian

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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