The Life and Travels of Maria Sibylla Merian
By Sara Evans
“So Art and Nature must always wrestle with each other, Until each defeats itself.” Maria Sibylla Merian, The New Book of Flowers
At the end of the 17th century, the lust for colonies was palpable throughout Europe, and in Amsterdam, the word “Suriname” was on everyone’s lips. This small colony under the aegis of the powerful Dutch West India Corporation, lay on the north-east coast of South America. Founded in 1667, it was populated by Dutch colonists, Sephardic Jews fleeing the never-ending Inquisition in Spain, and thousands upon thousands of enslaved Africans. The plantations, strung out along the coast, grew cotton, tobacco, cocoa, and acre upon acre of sugarcane, all to feed the booming Dutch economy and its thirst for the treasures of the New World.
Maria Sibylla Merian could not resist the lure of Suriname. In 1699, together with her daughter, Dorothea, she began a great adventure—at the age of 52. It was, by all accounts, a perilous voyage. After staying in the burgeoning capital of Paramaribo, along with two Black slaves and two indigenous guides, the women ventured into the rainforest and were dazzled by the incredible richness and intense colors of the flora and fauna. They sketched voraciously and collected specimen after specimen, from a wonderland of caimans and monkeys, snakes, amphibians, crocodiles, tortoises, iguanas and butterflies, birds and small mammals, flowers, fruits and trees. It was truly a new world. Their goal was not merely to draw and collect, recording the wonders they encountered, but to plumb the underlying mysteries of the ecosystem. They were among the first to explore the intricate interdependence of plant and animal life.
The hot, humid climate, however, was a challenge. Merian grew ill, and after completing hundreds of drawings, and collecting trunks full of specimens, she returned to Amsterdam, zealously identifying and documenting all that she had seen. Her book, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, one of the earliest and most detailed studies of the insects of the New World, was written in Latin. She then opened a shop in Amsterdam, selling her specimens and her art to a public eager for exotic goods from their thriving colonies. Prior to her voyage, Merian had established connections with some of the most important people in the city. She made known her displeasure known with the dominance of sugarcane, a monocrop, in Suriname—and promoted the growing of native fruits, such as pineapple, as an alternative.
Like her beloved moths and butterflies, frogs and toads, Maria Sibylla Merian was always in a state a metamorphosis, always transforming and evolving. As a woman, an artist and a scientist she was not just decades, but centuries, before her time, and her life is as instructive as her natural history. Born in Frankfurt in 1647, the young Maria found sanctuary in the gardens surrounding her home. At this time, Europe was riven by chaos. The Hundred Years’ War lingered on, crops failed, and the climate lurched into what was known as the Little Ice Age. Maria was only three when she lost her father, an artist and engraver from a noble family in Basel. A year later, her mother married Jacob Marrel, a well-known still life painter. His images of fruits and flowers, often contained a butterfly signifying the freshness of nature, or a beetle, an allegory of decay. While Maria was tasked with catching specimens for her stepfather, he, and his apprentice, gave her a lifelong gift. They taught her to draw and to paint.
Her grandfather, a prolific publisher of folios depicting the flora and fauna from such faraway places as Africa and South America, gave her unlimited access to an astonishingly rich library. At the dawn of the Enlightenment, wealthy, curious Europeans were eager to acquire illustrated books and specimens.
Observing the life cycle of plants and insects was an unusual passion for a child—and nothing that grew or crawled repelled Maria. Profoundly religious, she believed that each worm and spider, polliwog, snake and lizard, was evidence that God had created many wonders. For her, everything in nature was a source of fascination. While her mother was less than thrilled with all this drawing and collecting, Maria showed a fierce independence, claiming the family attic as her studio. She was particularly obsessed with the lifecycles of moths and butterflies, from eggs to hairy caterpillars to cocoons from which beautiful winged creatures emerged.
Silkworms were her special passion. She raised generation after generation of these very hungry caterpillars, feeding them lettuce and painstakingly documenting each phase of their transformation.
This obsession culminated in the publication of Merian’s first book, a two-volume study of the metamorphosis of the silkworm. Caterpillars: Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers, Vol. 1, was published in 1679. Each volume contained fifty detailed etchings which contradicted the popular belief in spontaneous generation—the notion that maggots from decaying meat, and mice from neglected cheese or bread
In 1665, Merian married Johannes Graff, moved to his city of Nurnberg, and had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. She taught painting and needlework and created embroidery designs, while producing her prolific etchings of plants, flowers and insects. She developed a unique artistic style, often surrounding her subject in an extravagant wreath of flowers and employing elegant crosshatching. She etched her own copper plates and created prints using a dampened paper technique.
Fifteen years later, she published The New Book of Flowers, with 36 etched plates, arguably one of the most important books of botanical art ever printed. Botanists and entomologists were stunned by the beauty and accuracy of her work. But her marriage to Johann was floundering, so Maria moved back to Frankfurt. From there, she retreated to a Labadist religious community in northern Holland. In a remarkable act for the times, Jacob divorced her, then followed her to the community to beg for her return, but he was not allowed beyond the gates. This period seems to have been a dark time, yet Maria emerged from it with the belief that God manifests and reveals Himself in every aspect of nature and the cosmos.
By 1691, she reclaimed her maiden name in a demonstration of powerful feminism and was then known as Maria Sibylla Merian. She maintained an unconventional household with her daughters, both accomplished botanical artists, in the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam, at the pinnacle of the Dutch Golden Age. In her final years, Merian corresponded with scientists across Europe and her books were acquired by prominent libraries. She died shortly before her 70th birthday, having travelled far and wide, and achieved recognition as both an artist and a naturalist.
In the years to come, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus would rely upon her work to classify insects, and Goethe, who was fascinated by the metamorphosis of plants, credited Merian for her ability to move “between art and science, between nature observation and artistic intention.” Her etchings were beautiful, but her images were not idealized or in any way tidied up. With a fierce fidelity and pragmatism, she gave us flowers with drooping petals, leaves with holes, and nature in every phase, showing us how the life force travels from birth to decay.
You can read about Merian’s adventures in Kim Todd’s excellent biography, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis and explore more of her work in the gallery below.
Sara Evans is the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home. She has written about culture, travel, and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living.