Artist profile: Maria Sibylla Merian

Artist profile: Maria Sibylla Merian

Remember the insects and plants Shin Saimdang painted in Korea? Around a hundred years later, in Germany, lived another excellent woman painter of insect and botanical life, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

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Unlike many scientists of the day, Merian drew and painted from live bugs, some of which she raised herself. From a young age, she was fascinated by the then-unknown process of how caterpillars become butterflies. She learned the skills of an artist alongside the male students of her stepfather, a painter, in his studio. He left Merian and her mother when the girl was twelve, however, so Merian then started drawing insects and presumably sold her artworks to have an income.

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At sixteen or eighteen, she married one of her stepfather’s former students, Johann Andreas Graff. Both their children, Johanna Helena Herolt and Dorothea Maria Graff, grew up to be artists who studied the world of plants and insects like their mother.

In 1675, the couple and their first baby were living in Nuremburg. Merian had her first collected work, volume I of The New Book of Flowers, published that year by her husband’s press. She intended this volume, and the two that followed it, to be a reference for craftspeople when they painted, embroidered, and carved floral decorations. Virtually all surviving copies of these books are damaged from heavy use. She also trained young women to embroider during her time in Nuremberg.

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Merian’s second published work was the two-volume Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars), in which she painted and described in words each stage of metamorphosis of moths and butterflies. She included the plants upon which the insects feasted and made their cocoons – a far more holistic presentation of the process than other scientists of her time, who just showed the insects alone. It was also far more accurate, as scientists believed that insects “spontaneously generated” from inert material like rotten fruit and meat.

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In the 1680s, Merian took her two daughters and mother to live in the Labadist religious community and refused to return to her husband. He eventually gave up trying to get her back, but she soon tired of the strict rules and joyless life of the Labadists and took her family to Amersterdam.

In this metropolis, she formed a studio with her daughters to produce and sell scientific and decorative paintings, made business connections, and trained apprentices, including super-famous still-life painter Rachel Ruysch.

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When she was fifty-two, Merian and her youngest daughter Dorthea trekked to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America to document the insect life there. Among the many life forms Merian encountered was a goliath bird-eating spider, the largest tarantula in the world. Although it rarely eats birds, it is named “bird-eating” because her iconic engraving depicts it eating a hummingbird.

Merian intended to stay in Suriname for five years, but she  returned to Amsterdam after only two to recover from a tropical sickness – something she intensely regretted. She had owned slaves in Suriname, and took back with her an indigenous woman who helped with the details of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), Merian’s most famous book.

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Part of the reason why this book is her most famous is because it was published in Latin – Latin being the scientific language of the day. Its images are reproduced from Merian’s vibrant, minutely-detailed watercolors. I found a life-size, full-color English and Dutch edition, based on the original 1705 printing held by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands) available to buy. (Click on the link to see the videos – I love the last one by Emmy Storm that animates the bugs!)

Merian continued to paint and publish until her death in 1717 at age 69. Her work was widely known and praised, and it is said that Tsar Peter the Great bought her watercolors the day of her funeral. The German poet Goethe was enamored of how she struck the perfect balance “between art and science, between nature observation and artistic intention.”

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Her daughters continued her legacy and their own scientific-artistic careers: Johanna Helena had joined her merchant husband to live in Suriname in 1711, and Dorothea Maria moved to St. Petersburg in 1718 to paint specimens from the Tsar’s collection; the Russian Academy of Sciences hired her to give museum tours, their first female employee.

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I would like to note that Merian’s work has been attacked over the centuries for being scientifically inaccurate, but the vast majority of mistakes were actually errors added to subsequent editions of her work after her death. Additionally, in several cases, what appeared to be mistakes were later proven correct: these include the sphinx moth’s split tongue, tarantulas eating birds, and ants crawling over each other to form bridges.

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Links for Maria Sibylla Merian:

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