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The Illustrious Life of Maria Sibylla Merian

ISSUE:
Page:
48-55

By Betsy Kruthoffer

Cataloger and Rare Book Librarian, Lloyd Library and Museum

All artwork courtesy of Lloyd Library and Museum

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to a family of painters, engravers, and printers. In the late 17th century, the art world belonged to men, but she learned to paint flowers with the encouragement of her stepfather, flower and still-life painter Jacob Marrel, alongside his male pupils and apprentices. As a child, Merian developed a fascination with the life cycles of insects, and by 1679 she had combined her talents and interests in her first insect book, Der Raupen Wunderbare Verwandelung und Sonderbare Blumen-Nahrung (The Caterpillar’s Wondrous Metamorphosis and Extraordinary Nourishment from Flowers). This revolutionary volume of 50 illustrations was the first to show the stages of metamorphosis as it occurred on an insect’s food plant — an ecological depiction centuries before the science of ecology was defined.

 

Following the failure of her marriage in the summer of 1685, Merian joined her half-brother, Caspar, at a Labadist (named for Jean de Labadie, a Jesuit priest who had converted to Protestantism) community in West Friesland in the Netherlands. Converts to the Protestant sect were expected to abandon their normal lives to seek self-sufficiency and reach Christian regeneration. Merian’s mother and two daughters accompanied her and they lived there for six years. When missionaries returned from a Labadist plantation in the Dutch colony of Suriname on the northeast coast of South America with exotic flora and fauna specimens, Merian was especially captivated by the insects.

In 1691, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam and made a living by giving painting lessons and selling watercolors. She also began to make connections with influential members of the Dutch natural history community as they commissioned her to paint the specimens in their collections. Her continued exposure to the insects of far-away places caused her interest to increase even more. In June of 1699, Merian and her youngest daughter, Dorothea, embarked on a two-year expedition to Suriname to observe and document the life cycles of these creatures in their natural habitat. However, they were forced to return to the Netherlands in the summer of 1701 when Merian contracted malaria.

Back in Amsterdam, Merian’s life’s work began in earnest when she had her Suriname paintings engraved and printed to form a book that was sold by subscription because of the immense cost to produce it. The first edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Transformation of the Surinamese Insects) was completed in 1705 and contained 60 plates, which were hand-colored by Merian and her daughters. Merian’s descriptions of the insects and plants in each image were written in both Dutch and Latin. According to the Maria Sibylla Merian Society, approximately 70 have survived. Four editions of Metamorphosis were produced posthumously (in 1719, 1726, 1730, and 1771) and included 12 additional illustrations by Merian that feature reptiles and marsupials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maria Sibylla Merian produced important, groundbreaking work at a time when women were almost completely left out of both art and science. Over the centuries her contributions have largely been forgotten. This year, the 300th anniversary of her death, is a good time to reintroduce the world to the woman who produced a masterful collection that depicted the insect-plant relationship in such a beautiful way.

Notes about Illustrations

The captions include the following information: (1) the Dutch or Latin name used by Merian, (2) the current Latin binomial and standardized common name1 of the depicted plant, and (3) English translations of descriptions from the 2016 facsimile of the 1705 edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, with corresponding plate numbers.2 Merian, whose interest in plants was primarily related to their connection to insects, did not focus on the medicinal properties of the plant species in her illustrations. In addition, her descriptions and depictions of the plants and insects (and the relationships between them) were based on her knowledge at the time, and therefore may not be fully accurate. The illustrations are in watercolor. (As a woman, Merian could not join a painters’ guild in Europe and therefore did not have access to oil paints.)

About the Lloyd Library and Museum

The Lloyd Library and Museum is located in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, and houses a world-class collection of books and journals centered on the subject of medicinal plants. Beginning in the late 1800s, brothers John Uri Lloyd and Curtis Gates Lloyd began accumulating research material to support their professional interests in pharmaceutical chemistry, botany, and mycology (study of fungi) and to aid in manufacturing drugs at their pharmaceutical company, Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists. With an endowment created by Curtis, the library has survived for more than 100 years as an independent institution and continues to collect current sources on botany, mycology, pharmacy, alternative medicine, natural history, and the history of medicine and science. The library also curates exhibits and hosts public programs year-round.

References

  1. McGuffin M, Kartesz JT, Leung AY, Tucker AO. American Herbal Products Association’s Herbs of Commerce. 2nd ed. Silver Springs, MD: American Herbal Products Association; 2000.
  2. van Delft M, Mulder H, eds. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705). Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo Publishers and The Hague, Netherlands: Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands); 2016.