Who was Maria Sibylla Merian?
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a true pioneer in both art and natural history. And considered by Sir David Attenborough to be among the most important contributors to the field of entomology.
Merian is best known for her illustrations of plants and insects. She was the first to record the process of metamorphosis – observing and recording the lifecycle of the butterfly.
Merian recorded the lifecycle of 186 insect species
In her lifetime, Merian recorded and illustrated the lifecycle of 186 insect species. Her achievements are even more noteworthy, given that she began her work in the 17th century, at a time when women were strongly discouraged from entering the fields of art and science.
Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany and grew up within a middle-class family of artists and publishers. Her father, who was a painter, engraver and publisher, died when Merian was just three and her mother later married the German painter Jacob Marrel.
Marrel introduced the young Merian to painting; teaching her how to draw, mix paints, paint in watercolour and make prints; all alongside his male pupils.
Merian was interested in insects and their metamorphosis
While developing her artistic talents, Merian’s interests turned to the insect world and she began carefully observing the world of caterpillars, butterflies and moths. By the age of 13, Merian had observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm.
Merian’s discovery that insects are born from eggs pre-dates published accounts by almost 10 years. Until this time, it was commonly believed that caterpillars and other insects were spontaneously created from dirt and mud.
With the encouragement of her stepfather, Merian began describing and illustrating the insects she studied. As well as discovering the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly, Merian also discovered that every species of caterpillar feeds on a certain plant.
In her drawings, we see how Merian strived to illustrate the caterpillar alongside its preferred plant, its cocoon and the resulting butterfly.
Merian married and had two daughters. The family made Nuremberg their home and here Merian continued her entomological research and drawings.
Merian sailed to Suriname in South America
Merian was keen to discover even more so in 1699 she sailed to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria.
The jungles of South America provided an abundance of species for Merian to study. It is here that she began the work for her most acclaimed publication ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ about the insects of Suriname.
She also observed the treatment of slaves by the Dutch colonists, providing important accounts of life in the area.
In 1701, poor health forced Merian to return home. With her she brought many sketches, mounted butterflies and live caterpillars. Back in Europe, Merian completed her drawings and notes, with the first edition of ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ published in 1705.
Merian died on 13th January 1717. But the important contribution she made to the world of science means her legacy will never be forgotten. Her image once appeared on a German banknote and a Dutch butterfly was named after her.
Taken from the original illustrations in the libraries of Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, the collection ‘Methamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (2nd edition’ contains all 72 giclee prints after the hand-colored originals.