Saturday, April 28, 2012

Maria Sibylla Merian

Portrait c. 1700
Today's featured person is one you may have never heard of- 17th century German illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian. She is known for the numerous paintings and engravings that she did of plants and insects, as well as the accurate observations that she made while creating these images.

Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647. She came from a family that was already very established in the art world. Her father, Matthaus Merian, was a prominent engraver and publisher, and her stepfather was still like painter Jacob Marrel. Marrel taught his stepdaughter to draw and paint from a very young age, and she studied under him along with his male pupils.

Insects fascinated Merian, and by the age of 13 she was already producing works of art based on specimens that she had captured and observed. At 18 she married one of her stepfather's pupils, and soon moved to Nuremburg. While there she began to take on students of her own, and her increased wealth and social standing gave her access to the gardens of the city elite. These garden studies would influence her first two published collections - Neues Blumenbuch (New Book of Flowers), and Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food).

Engraving from The Insects of Suriname
And since I've just mentioned Caterpillars, now would be a great time to talk about Maria's major contribution to science. During her time, scholars believed that insects spontaneously generated out of mud and decaying matter. Maria Merian helped to turn that school of thought on its head. Her interest in insects led her to create incredibly detailed portraits of them in various stages of metamorphoses. She not only showed the different stages, she also included the plants that the insects ate, and provided detailed textual notes on the timing, colors, and forms. So overall, that close attention to detail helped to disprove the beliefs of the time.

In 1681 her stepfather passed away and she returned to Frankfurt to handle his estate. The ensuing legal battle eventually ended with her leaving her husband and moving to the Netherlands with her mother and two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. After the death of Merian's mother in 1691, the family moved to the city of Amsterdam where their artwork received a great deal of notice from the local scientific community. During this time Johanna married a prominent merchant who was involved with trade to Suriname, which was a newly acquired Dutch colony.

Feeling that she had seen all the plants and insects she would ever see in the Netherlands, Maria wanted to see the exotic flora and fauna that Suriname had to offer. In 1699, she and Dorothea set sail for South America, and spent two years there before poor health and the threat of Malaria sent them back to Europe.

Upon their return, the mother and daughter started work on a new book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Suriname), which was published in 1705. During her time in Suriname, Merian not only discovered several previously unknown species, but she also classified them as well. Some of these classifications have remained today!

Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717. Around the time of her death, several of her watercolors were sold to Czar Peter the Great, and the following year Dorothea moved to Saint Petersburg were she continued her life as an artist.

Maria Sibylla Merian's art continues to be collected, and her memory has been recognized in the past few decades though stamps, portraits on money, and through the naming of a German research vessel in 2005.

1 comment:


  1. One of the things I love about Google Doodles is that many of the people they honor, like today's honoree, are not well-known to the general public. I've really enjoyed getting to know her work through today's Doodle and the links provided.

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