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Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian portrait from 500DM banknote.png
Born (1647-04-02)2 April 1647
Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire
Died 13 January 1717(1717-01-13) (aged 69)
Amsterdam, Dutch Republic
Occupation Naturalist, scientific illustrator, entomologist
Known for Documentation of butterfly metamorphosis, scientific illustration

Maria Sibylla Merian (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, a descendent of the Frankfurt branch of the Swiss Merian family, founders of one of Europe's largest publishing houses in the 17th century.

Merian received her artistic training from her Dutch stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a student of the still life painter Georg Flegel. She remained in Frankfurt until 1670, relocating subsequently to Nuremberg, Wieuwerd, (Friesland) and Amsterdam. Merian published her first book of natural illustrations, titled Neues Blumenbuch, in 1675 at age 28.[1] In 1699, following eight years of painting and studying, and on the encouragement of Cornelis van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, the then-governor of the Dutch colony of Surinam, Merian was awarded a grant by the city of Amsterdam to travel to South American with her daughter Dorothea.[2] After two years there, she was forced return to Europe as result of malaria.[1][2] She then proceeded to publish her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, in 1705, for which she became famous. Because of her careful observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly, she is considered among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.[3]

Early life and early career[edit]

Maria Sibylla Merian c. 1700, Copperplate by Jacobus Houbraken from a portrait by Georg Gsell

Maria Sibylla Merian was born on 2 April 1647 in Frankfurt, then a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, into the family of the Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder. Her father died three years later, and in 1651 her mother married still life painter Jacob Marrel. Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. At the age of thirteen she painted her first images of insects and plants from specimens she had captured. Regarding her youth, in the foreword to Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Merian wrote: "I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed".[4]

In 1665 Merian married Marrel's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff from Nuremberg; his father was a poet and director of the local high school, one of the leading schools in 17th century Germany. Two years later she had her first child, Johanna Helena, and the family moved to Nuremberg. While living there, Maria Sibylla continued painting, working on parchment and linen, and creating designs for embroidery. She gave drawing lessons to unmarried daughters of wealthy families (her "Jungferncompaney", i.e. virgin group), which helped her family financially and increased its social standing. This provided her with access to the finest gardens, maintained by the wealthy and elite.

Friesland[edit]

in 1685 haar echtgenoot en trok met haar moeder en dochters naar de stins Walta State in Wieuwerd (Friesland), waar haar halfbroer Caspar Merian al woonde. Het slot was eigendom van de zusters van Cornelis van Sommelsdijck, de gouverneur van Suriname. In het slot was een leef- en werkgemeenschap gevestigd van de Labadists, een religieuze groepering die leefde naar de ideeën van (de inmiddels al overleden) Jean de Labadie. where they set up a community in a stately home – Walta Castle – at Wieuwerd in Friesland, which belonged to three sisters Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, who were his adherents. Here printing and many other occupations continued, including farming and milling.

Several noted visitors have left their accounts of visits to the Labadist community. One was Sophie of Hanover, mother of King George I of Great Britain; another was William Penn, the Quaker pioneer, who gave his name to the US state of Pennsylvania; a third was the English philosopher John Locke.[5]

At its peak, the community numbered around 600 with many more adherents further afield. Visitors came from England, Italy, Poland and elsewhere, but not all approved of the strict discipline. Those of arrogant disposition were given the most menial of jobs. Fussiness in matters or food was overcome since all were expected to eat what was put in front of them.

Amsterdam[edit]

In Amsterdam kreeg Merian vooral door haar rupsenboek snel contact met andere natuurliefhebbers en -onderzoekers, zoals Steven Blankaart, waardoor ze ook toegang kreeg tot volières, rariteitenkabinetten en oranjerieën van rijke particulieren zoals de burgemeester van Amsterdam, Nicolaas Witsen, en Frederik Ruysch, met zeldzame vogels en planten. Haar belangstelling voor de exotische natuur van de tropen werd mede door deze tuinen verder aangewakkerd. Ze zette in Amsterdam onder eigen naam een bedrijfje op dat onder meer pigmenten, penselen, geprepareerde insecten en dieren op sterk water verkocht. Haar oudste dochter, Johanna Helena Graff, was gehuwd met Jacob Hendrik Herolt, een Labadistische broeder die handelscontacten had met Suriname.

Daughter communities were set up in the New World. La Providence, a daughter colony on the Commewijne River in Surinam, proved unsuccessful. The Labadists were unable to cope with jungle diseases, and supplies from the Netherlands were often intercepted by pirates.[6]

Suriname[edit]

This portrait of the collector Esther Barbara von Sandrart is often misidentified as a portrait of Merian

In 1699 the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to travel to Suriname in South America, along with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria. Before departing, she wrote:

In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.[4]

Merian maakte op 52-jarige leeftijd een reis naar Suriname samen met haar jongste dochter, Dorothea Maria Graff. De bootreis duurde in die tijd drie maanden. Vanuit de hoofdstad Paramaribo trokken de vrouwen in diverse excursies het binnenland in. Merian documenteerde alles wat ze over de metamorfose van tropische insecten kon ontdekken en maakte een groot aantal tekeningen en aquarellen. In 1701 werd ze echter ziek- wellicht had ze malaria opgelopen - en moest naar huis terugkeren samen met haar dochter. Het was ook belangrijk om snel huiswaarts te keren omdat een oorlog tussen de Nederlanden, Engeland en Frankrijk dreigde uit te breken die het zeeverkeer voor een groot deel stil zou leggen. Merian nam volgens de passagierslijst van het koopvaardijschip De Vrede waar ze op voeren ook "een Indianin" mee naar Nederland. Het was in die tijd niet ongewoon om een inheemse bediende mee terug te nemen naar het thuisland. Waarschijnlijk deed ze dit omdat zij in Amsterdam nog gebruik wilde maken van de kennis van deze vrouw voor haar Surinaamse Insectenboek.

went to Surinam in 1700 and drew several plates for her classic Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium on the Labadist plantation of La Providence.[7]

Merian worked in Suriname, which included what later became known as the French, Dutch and British Guianas, for two years,[8] travelling around the colony and sketching local animals and plants. She criticized Dutch planters' treatment of natives and black slaves. She recorded local native names for the plants and described local uses. In 1701 malaria forced her to return to the Dutch Republic.


Back in the Netherlands, Merian sold specimens she had collected and published a collection of engravings of plant and animal life in Suriname. In 1705 she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Suriname.[3]

In 1715, Merian suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed. She continued her work, but her illness probably affected her ability to work. A later registry lists her as a pauper.

Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam on 13 January 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother's work, posthumously.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the work of Merian was rediscovered, recognised, and reprinted.[9] Her portrait was printed on the 500 DM note before Germany converted to the euro. Her portrait has also appeared on a 0.40 DM stamp, released on 17 September 1987, and many schools are named after her. In 2005, a modern research vessel named Maria S. Merian was launched at Warnemünde, Germany. She was honored with a Google Doodle on 2 April 2013 to mark her 366th birth anniversary.[10]

Work[edit]

Plate showing stages of Cocytius antaeus[11] from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium
Merian's major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Merian worked as a botanical artist. She published collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677, and 1680. She collected and observed live insects and created detailed drawings to illustrate insect metamorphosis. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called "beasts of the devil."[citation needed] As a consequence of their reputation, the metamorphosis of these animals was largely unknown. Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were "born of mud" by spontaneous generation.

Moreover, although certain scholars were aware of the process of metamorphosis from the caterpillar to the butterfly, the majority of people did not understand the process.

The work that Anna Maria Sibylla Merian published, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung – The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, was very popular in certain segments of high society as a result of being published in the vernacular. However, her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin.

Merian also described many other details of the evolution and lifecycle of the insects she observed. For example, she showed that each stage of the change from caterpillar to butterfly depended on a small number of plants for its nourishment. She noted that as a consequence the eggs were laid near these plants.

Merian was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. This approach gave her much more insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time.

The pursuit of her work in Suriname was an unusual endeavour, especially for a woman. In general, only men received royal or government funding to travel in the colonies to find new species of plants and animals, make collections and to work there, or to settle. Scientific expeditions at this period of time were not common, and Merian's unofficial, self-funded expedition raised many eyebrows. She succeeded, however, in discovering a whole range of previously unknown animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Merian spent time studying and classifying her findings and described them in great detail. Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today. She used Native American names to refer to the plants, which became used in Europe:

I created the first classification for all the insects which had chrysalises, the daytime butterflies and the nighttime moths. The second classification is that of the maggots, worms, flies, and bees. I retained the indigenous names of the plants, because they were still in use in America by both the locals and the Indians.[4]

Merian's drawings of plants, frogs,[12] snakes, spiders, iguanas, and tropical beetles are still collected today by amateurs all over the world. The German word Vogelspinnemygalomorphae, translated literally as bird spider—probably has its origins in an engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian. The engraving, created from sketches drawn in Surinam, shows a large spider who had just captured a bird. In the same engraving and accompanying text Merian was the first European to describe both army ants and leaf cutter ants as well as their effect on other organisms.[13]

Shortly before Merian's death, her work was seen in Amsterdam by Peter the Great. She was buried on 17 January 1717. After her death he acquired a significant number of her paintings[14] which to this day are kept in academic collections in St. Petersburg.[15]

Popular culture[edit]

On 2 April 2013, Merian was honoured with a Google Doodle, in celebration of her 366th birthday.[16]

  1. ^ a b Cavna, Michael. "Maria Sibylla Merian Doodle: Naturally, Google celebrates the artist's evergreen legacy". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b GrrlScientist. "Maria Sibylla Merian: artist whose passion for insects changed science". The Guardian. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Kristensen, Niels P. (1999). "Historical Introduction". In Kristensen, Niels P. Lepidoptera, moths and butterflies: Evolution, Systematics and Biogeography. Volume 4, Part 35 of Handbuch der Zoologie:Eine Naturgeschichte der Stämme des Tierreiches. Arthropoda: Insecta. Walter de Gruyter. p. 1. ISBN 978-3-11-015704-8. 
  4. ^ a b c Foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam)
  5. ^ Glausser, Wayne (1998). Locke and Blake: a conversation across the eighteenth century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. pp. 23–4. ISBN 0-8130-1570-7. 
  6. ^ Labadisten in Suriname, West-Indische Gids, 8 (1827), 193-218
  7. ^ Maria Sybilla Merian, Artist, Naturalist, Magazine Antiques, (August 2000)
  8. ^ de Bray (2001), p. 48.
  9. ^ Erlanger-Glozer, Liselotte (1978). "Maria Sibylla Merian, 17th Century Entomologist, Artist, and Traveller". Insect World Digest. 3 (2): 12–21.  Unknown parameter |month= ignored (help)
  10. ^ "Maria Sibylla Merian: Scientific illustrator honoured with Google doodle". Retrieved 04/02/2013.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  11. ^ "Plate 38 to Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium". Royal Collection Trust. Retrieved 9 April 2013. 
  12. ^ Etheridge, Kay (2010). "Maria Sybilla Merian's Frogs" (PDF). Bibliotheca Herpetologica. 8: 20–27. 
  13. ^ Etheridge, Kay (2011). "Maria Sibylla Merian and the metamorphosis of natural history" (PDF). Endeavour. 35 (1): 16–22. PMID 21126767. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.10.002. 
  14. ^ Todd (2007), pp. 228–229
  15. ^ Wettengl, Kurt, ed. (1998). Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647–1717: artist and naturalist. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje. pp. 34 and 54. ISBN 3775707514. 
  16. ^ "Maria Sibylla Merian: Scientific illustrator honoured with Google doodle". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-04-02. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Mineke Bosch en Ruth Oldenziel (red.): Curious careers. An Unexpected History of Women in Science and Technology, Eindhoven 2006, Stichting Historie der Techniek, ISBN 978-90-731-9229-4
  • Eckhard Hollmann (Editor): Maria Sibylla Merian: The St. Petersburg Watercolours, Prestel publishing, 2003, ISBN 3791329278
  • Maria Sibylla Merian: Flowers, Butterflies and Insects: All 154 Engravings from "Erucarum Ortus", Dover Pictorial Archive Series, Dover Publications (1991), ISBN 0486266362
  • Ella Reitsma: Maria Sibylla Merian & Dochters, Vrouwenlevens tussen kunst en wetenschap, Zwolle 2008, Waanders, ISBN 978-90-400-8457-7
  • Kim Todd: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, Harcourt publishers 1e ed (2007), ISBN 0151011087