Who Is Maria Sibylla Merian?
Artist, scientist, mother, rule breaker extraordinaire…
Maria Sibylla Merian’s life story is filled with curious details. This German-born artist, botanist, naturalist, entomologist, and scientific illustrator lived during the 1700s in the Netherlands, where adherence to the guild system in Europe prevented women from painting in oil. Consequently, Merian painted with watercolors and gouache, instead of oil.
In 1699 the city of Amsterdam awarded Merian a grant to travel to South America with her daughter Dorothea, making Merian perhaps the first person to “plan a journey rooted solely in science.” She published her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (de), in 1705.
Because of her careful observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly, David Attenborough  considers Maria Sibylla Merian to be among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.
Video: Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam
Maria Sibylla Merian – The Cottonian Collection
In Merian’s Own Words
In the foreword to Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Merian writes of her childhood:
“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”.
Maria Sibylla Merian says that she only wishes to study “the generation, reproduction and transformation of the creatures, how one emerges from the other, [and] the nature of their diet.. . . Therefore, I would ask you to be so kind and not to send me any more [dead] creatures, for I have no use for them.”
… plate 18 from her Metamorphosis, … shows the branch of a guava tree almost defoliated by leaf cutter and army ants which are crawling up the stem.A few ants attack a small spider and a cockroach, while a tarantula eats a hummingbird. There are different species of spiders and yet another tarantula with an egg sac.
“This [is] no garden of Eden – but a relentless battle. One hundred and fifty years before Charles Darwin [writes] his Origin of Species, Merian [knows] nature well enough to depict it as a constant struggle for survival.” (Wulf 2016)
Click for enlarged view:
- Etheridge, Kay (2011).“Maria Sibylla Merian and the metamorphosis of natural history” (PDF). Endeavour. 35 (1): 16–22. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.10.002. PMID21126767.
- Andrea Wulf, (August 2, 2016 The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/01/the-woman-who-made-science-beautiful/424620/ (accessed 28 Dec 2018).
- Concordia University’s excellent lesson plans for elementary school children Free lesson plans on Maria Sibylla Merian
- Maria Sibylla Merian. (2018, February 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:53, February 13, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maria_Sibylla_Merian&oldid=824915377
- Maria Sibylla Merian, A contribution to the 25th anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Web. Feb.14, 2018 http://www.doaks.org/resources/online-exhibits/maria-sibylla-merian
- Wikipedia contributors, “Maria Sibylla Merian,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maria_Sibylla_Merian&oldid=824915377 (accessed Feb. 10, 2018).
Image credit facing page:
Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born woman living in the Netherlands, had a successful career as an artist, botanist, naturalist and entomologist. Credit Jacob Houbraken, after Georg Gsell, via Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Amsterdam 1705, The Hague, National Library of the Netherlands.
Thanks for Reading!