Maria Sibylla Merian: metamorphosis unmasked by art and science
Seventeenth-century German artist, scientific illustrator and naturalist, Anna Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) is best known for her travels and research in Dutch Suriname, South America.
At a time when insects were believed to spring forth magically from mud, waste and plant matter in a process known as 'spontaneous generation', Merian was one of the first to closely observe and record the process of insect metamorphosis.
Her meticulous depictions of metamorphosis, as well as of the tropical flora and fauna of Suriname, caught the attention of the Royal Academy more than 250 years before the first woman was permitted to join.
Maria Sibylla Merian's early life
Merian was born on 2 April 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, into a family of printers and engravers. When she was three, her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, passed away. Her mother, Johanna Catharina Sibylla, then married the artist Jacob Marrel, who was known for his highly fashionable flower pieces.
Growing up in Marrel's studio, Merian became highly skilled with watercolours and learned to prepare pigments and copper plates for printing.
A lifelong fascination with art and science
By age 13, Merian was already a budding artist with a growing curiosity about the natural world. In her journal, she recorded her efforts to rear silkworms and included detailed observations and sketches of their life cycle.
This early inquiry would become a lifelong fascination. Throughout her life Merian painstakingly collected and reared larvae (including caterpillars) and butterflies, observing and recording their life cycles and host plants.
Sometimes a pupa would surprise her by hatching into a swarm of flies or wasps rather than the butterfly or moth she had expected. She recorded this phenomenon as 'false changes', which may be the earliest scientific record of insect parasitism.
Entomology (the study of insects) didn't become a distinct field of science until the nineteenth century.
In 1665, aged 18, Merian married one of her stepfather's apprentices, Johann Andreas Graff.
Following the birth of their first daughter, Johanna Helena, the young family moved to Nuremberg in 1670 and opened their own studio.
In Nuremberg, Merian worked as a flower painter and engraver, publishing three volumes of flower engravings between 1675 and 1680.
These were the result of her time teaching embroidery to the wealthy daughters of local merchants, which generated important income for the Graff household. The merchants often had greenhouses with exotic flowers from which she created her designs.
Merian's flower books became popular guides for botanical watercolour painting and embroidery, two art forms available to women at the time. Merian added insects on almost every page.
A second daughter, Dorothea Maria, was born in 1678. The following year Merian published her first book on the metamorphosis of European butterflies.
Her first 'caterpillar book' (as she called them) contained 50 copper plate engravings showing the full life cycle of insects and their associated plants.
Merian was familiar with the work of Jan Goedaert (1617-1668), who also painted insect life cycles, but her approach broke important new ground.
While Goedaert and other contemporaries worked with dried specimens, Merian's depictions of metamorphosis were based on her own meticulous observations of living creatures and the plants that sustained them.
An early forerunner of ecological thinking, Merian's revolutionary approach was only made popular by the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus more than half a century later.
After the death of her stepfather Jacob Marrell in 1681, Merian returned to Frankfurt to support her mother and escape her own unhappy marriage. From her mother's home she published her second volume on European butterflies in 1683.
Joining the Labadists
In 1685, Merian took her daughters and widowed mother to join the Labadists, a Protestant commune based at Waltha Castle in the Netherlands.
The owner of Waltha Castle, Cornelis van Aersen van Sommelsdijk, had an extensive collection of natural history objects that sparked Merian's interest, including butterflies from the Dutch colony of Suriname.
Although the commune eschewed worldliness, they had a printing press and Merian was able to continue her work.
Holy grounds for divorce
In 1686, her estranged husband Johann visited the commune in an effort to retrieve her. With support from Labadist elders, Merian reasoned that as Johann did not share her faith, their marriage was no longer valid in the eyes of God.
Johann and Merian officially divorced in 1692.
Business in Amsterdam
In 1691, following the death of her mother at Waltha Castle the previous year, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam. Under the city's relatively progressive laws, they were able to open their own studio.
The three women worked as independent artists and prepared pigments and specimens for a growing market of collectors.
In cosmopolitan Amsterdam, Merian had access to some of the finest natural history collections in the world. As she mingled with scholars, physicians and botanists, ideas for her own voyage of discovery began to take shape.
Voyage to Suriname
In 1699, aged 52 and accompanied only by her daughter Dorothea, Merian set off on the first-ever purely scientific expedition to the Dutch colony of Suriname.
Undeterred by warnings and social precedent, Merian sold her paintings, prepared her will and (with some help from an influential friend) even secured a small stipend from the Dutch government to help fund her research.
Braving an uncomfortable two-month voyage, the mother-daughter team arrived in Paramaribo and began the overwhelming task of cataloguing the lush tropical flora and fauna of the region.
Merian selected plants primarily for their relationship with the insects they hosted.
Merian also painted non-entomological subjects such as reptiles, amphibians, spiders and small mammals.
Merian's research in Suriname was made possible by slave labour in the region.
She drew heavily on the local knowledge and assistance of enslaved people, who laboured in terrible conditions on the Dutch sugar plantations of Suriname. Her notes contain candid accounts of their hardship.
In the text accompanying this illustration of a peacock flower, Merian wrote of the suffering of Suriname's enslaved peoples [warning: readers may find the following excerpt distressing]:
'The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that they will not become slaves like themselves… In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.'
Images of the fantastical creatures of Suriname
In 1701, after two years enduring heat, wet and tropical illness in Suriname, Merian and Dorothea returned to Europe.
The resulting book on the Insects of Suriname (Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium) was published in 1705. Most of her observations were completely new to Western science.
Merian's death and legacy
Having never fully recovered from her tropical illness in Suriname, Merian suffered a stroke in 1715 that left her unable to work. She died in poverty two years later, aged 69.
Merian's pioneering form of natural history illustration earned her a reputation in both scientific and artistic circles.
Her work impressed naturalist and collector Hans Sloane, who purchased a number of her original watercolours, as well as Tsar Peter the Great, who acquired a large collection of her works for his Museum in Russia.
Half a century later, eminent taxonomist Carl Linnaeus cited Merian's illustrations for several plants and more than 100 new animal species. Since then at least six plants, nine butterflies, two bugs, one spider and one lizard have been named in her honour.
During Maria Sibylla Merian's lifetime, Suriname became one of a number of Dutch colonies in the area, sometimes called Dutch Guiana. The country has always officially been known as the Republic of Suriname or Surinam - the former spelling is more commonly used now.