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Maria Sybilla Merian and her amazing Insects of Europe produced in 1730. Merians trasformations of insects were revolutionary in her day. These are lovely of old water colored copper plate engravings on hand made hand laid linen rag. They are small, measuring about 7 x 8 1/4″ each.
Maria Sibylla Merian History by Christina Clarke of Williamsburg, VA
Written February 9, 2015 for the use of Anne Hall Antique Prints.
April 2, 1647 – January 13, 1717
This remarkable woman is considered to have been one of the most significant contributors to the developmental stage of the field of entomology (a branch of zoology that deals with insects). She was a life-long dedicated entomologist. She also worked as a botanical artist, portraying insects with their host plants and painting flowers. Maria Sibylla Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species. Her specific area of interest, in the metamorphosis of insects, was the life cycles of moths and butterflies.
The Merian Family History and its Impact in the 17th Century
Matthaus Merian the Elder, was a painter and engraver in Switzerland, France, and Germany. In 1646, a year after the death of his first wife, Merian the Elder married Johanna Sibylla Heim, whose heritage was Dutch. Maria Sibylla Merian was born to the couple a year later, in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1647. Her father died when she was three years old. In 1651, her mother married Jacob Marrel, a German flower/still-life painter and art dealer, who was a widower with three young children. They lived in Frankfurt, Germany, where Jacob Marrel established a workshop and had two apprentices for instruction in drawing, painting and engraving. He and Maria Sibylla Merian developed a unique relationship. Marrel introduced Maria Sibylla to the art of miniature flower painting, against her mother’s will. Maria Sibylla secretly began to teach herself to draw and paint. Studying alongside Marrel’s male pupils, she learned how to draw, mix paints, paint in watercolor, and make prints. By the age of 11, she could engrave a copperplate. Beginning at age 13, when Maria Sibylla observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm, her documentation of nature continued for more than 50 years. She was enthralled with the raising of caterpillars “in glass jars, wooden boxes covered with gauze, in her attic and cellar” (Reitsma, 2008, p. 25). She was especially interested in capturing and raising caterpillars, to observe and document their life cycles. Maria Sibylla was tenacious in her collection and raising of thousands of caterpillars, over decades, and documenting their life cycles, i.e., drawing and describing them with careful attention and accurate details.
Maria Sybilla Merian: Artist, Entomologist, Author, Wife and Parent
Johann Andreas Graff (1636-1701) was her step-father’s favorite pupil. Maria Sibylla and Johann A. Graff were married when she was 18 (1665). Johann was near 30 years old and was a publisher. They moved to his native Nuremberg in 1668. As a woman, Maria Sibylla Graff was prohibited from selling oil paintings, but was permitted to paint in watercolor on vellum. She taught embroidery and painting to the daughters of respected citizens in Nuremberg. The Graffs had two daughters, Johanna Helena (born 1668) and Dorothea Maria (born 1678). While in Nuremberg, Maria Sibylla began her prodigious publication of books on flowers and caterpillars. In 1675, the first volume (of three) of Neues Blumenbuch (New Book of Flowers) was published, by Johann’s publishing company. Each volume had 12 flower plates.
Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung
In 1679,Volume I, of her 3-volume book, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (The Wondrous Transformation and Singular Plant Nourishment of Caterpillars) was published in German through her husband’s company. This publication illustrates the metamorphosis of caterpillars, against the background of their host plants. It was the first work in history to link art and entomology. In the preface of this phenomenal publication, Maria Sibylla states that she wrote it as a means of worshiping God (Reitsma, 2008). Also known as The Caterpillar Book, it was also published in Frankfurt in 1683 and posthumously, in Dutch, in Amsterdam in 1717.
About 1686, Maria Sibylla left her husband. They later divorced, in 1692. She dropped Graff as her last name, and was thereafter known as Maria Sibylla Merian (her birth name). She, her two daughters, and her elderly mother, moved to a religious sect community known as Labadists, near Amsterdam, The Netherlands. While there, Marian developed a fascination for the tropical plants brought to the religious community by fellow Labadists, from their Suriname plantations in South America. In 1691, following the collapse of their religious community and the passing of her mother, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam.
Merian and her daughters, both of whom learned the skills of art from their mother, established a studio in Amsterdam. They painted birds, insects, and flowers. Merian had maintained contact with some of her Labadist acquaintances, and knew there was a Labadist plantation, in the Dutch colony of Suriname (AKA Surinam), on the northern coast of South America (Dutch Guiana). In 1699, at age 52, Merian decided to go to Suriname, where her older daughter, Johanna Helena, the wife of a Dutch merchant, was already living. She sold more than 200 of her paintings to raise money for the trip, and wrote a will before she left. Merian and her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria (age 21), traveled to Suriname and resided as guests of a Labadist plantation. Her observations of the local climate, where she and Dorothea resided during their two-year stay, are expressed in her accounts of Nature: vibrant butterflies, voracious caterpillars and ants, menacing reptiles, exotic fruits and vegetables, and treacherous jungle explorations (Getty Museum, 2008). Her accomplishments included describing the local uses of animals and plants — for some, she gave them their native names (Reitsma, 2008). Though she had hoped to stay in Suriname for five years, Merian developed a tropical fever (malaria?) and had to return home, in 1701, several years earlier than she had anticipated.
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium – Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname
The book for which Merian is the most famous is the one she published about the insects and host plants, that she observed, drew, and collected in Suriname (Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium – Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname). This book was initially published (in Dutch and German) in 1705. Merian devoted several years to this publication, which depicted a number of plants and insects that had not previously been seen or described in Europe. “This book was groundbreaking in many ways and had enormous impact on European perception of the tropical New World, the life cycles of insects and the manner in which natural history subjects could be portrayed graphically to show something of their natural context” (Bulletin of the Hunt Institute, pg. 8).
Scientific Achievements by Maria Sybilla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian’s skills in observation and research, and her artistic talents, were a lead into the world of science. She helped to put entomology – the study of insects – onto a more scientific footing. Her publications were in German, or Dutch, rather than Latin, which was the publication language of scientists, at that time. It is of note that, together, her three books generated 19 editions, between 1665-1771. Both of Maria Sibylla’s daughters, Dorothea and Johanna, ensured the circulation of their mother’s scientific artwork.
Upon returning from Suriname, Merian continued to supplement her income by selling insects and other creatures she had preserved. In 1702, the following creatures were listed as “animals in liquid” for sale: 1 crocodile, 2 large snakes, 18 small snakes, 11 iguanas, 1 gecko, and 1 small turtle. This activity continued for another decade.
In 1715, Maria Sibylla suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. She died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. The day of her death a large number of Maria Sibylla Merian’s paintings were sold to an agent of Tsar Peter the Great for his new natural history collection in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Bulletin of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. Vol.22, No. 1, Spring 2010. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon Univ.
Jacob-Hanson, Charlotte. August 2000. The Magazine Antiques. New York: Hirschl&Adler Galleries.
J. Paul Getty Museum.Getty Center Exhibitions. 2008. Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science.
Reitsma, Ella. 2008. Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science. Zolle,The Netherlands: Waanders Publishers.
Todd, Kim. 2007. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.
Wettengl, Kurt. 1998. Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist and Naturalist. Ostfildern: G. Hatje.
Various references were observed to have used different interpretations of : geographic names,, the titles of Merian’s publications, historical information, and the languages used for publications (i.e., Latin, German, Dutch).
February 9, 2015