Thursday, April 30, 2015

Maria Sibylla Merian, Lepidopterist and Artist

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

Born 1647 in Frankfurt.
Died 1717 in Amsterdam.

S.T.E.A.M. Powers: 

  • Botanical illustrator
  • Entomological illustrator
  • Scientific author writing in local language, rather than Latin to make her work more accessible.
  • Worked from live specimens of insects rather than preserved versions and often reared her own specimens to entirely observe life cycle.
  • Scientific explorer

Her Story...

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire. This middle class young lady was a child of a family of printers and artists and she started training in painting at a young age, under the tutelage of her step-father and several of his apprentices. In addition to painting the flowers and insects that she found beautiful, she also began to collect insects, especially butterflies. Marian would carefully rear the larvae she collected and study the butterflies during each stage of their lives and record the process of their metamorphosis in her paintings.

Merian married her father's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff and moved to his home city of Nuremberg. The couple had two daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena. Maria Sibylla and Graff separated and Maria Sibylla and her daughters moved to a Labadist religious colony for a time.

Illuminated Copper engraving 
from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate IX. Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705
 A Great Journey: In 1699, Maria Sibylla and her daughter Dorothea Maria took passage on a ship to the Dutch colony of Surinam. Paid for in part by the sale of their belongings and in part as a grant from the city of Amsterdam, these two women explorers traveled across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of South America in a time when women rarely traveled without family and even more rarely as scientific explorers.

While in Surinam, Maria Sibylla and her daughter collected insects of all kinds and reared them to observe their full life cycles. Maria Sibylla used the names provided by the indigenous people and often paid them to bring her insects that she had not yet seen. Due to concerns of health and a possible case of Malaria, Maria Sibylla had to return to Amsterdam two years later. After her return, she published her masterwork: The Insects of Suriname.

In her lifetime, Maria Sibylla depicted and illustrated the life-cycle of 186 species. Both of her daughters, Dorothea Maria and Johanna Helena, also became accomplished illustrators and together, the three ensured that women illustrators could produce works as fine as any man. Maria Sibylla wrote not in the accepted language of science, Latin, but rather in the vernacular, which allowed public at large to find a better understanding of the life of insects. She left a lasting legacy of curiosity, knowledge and beauty that is still celebrated today.

Learn More:

Books by Merian:
Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 
Plate XX

Books about Merian and her Work:

Books about Maria Sibylla Merian for Children:

Online resources

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