Maria Sibylla Merian and Natural History

Maria Sibylla Merian

Who Is Maria Sibylla Merian?

Maria Sibylla Merian

Artist, scientist, businesswoman, mother, and rule breaker extraordinaire – there is no doubt that Maria Sibylla Merian’s life story is filled with astonishing accomplishments. 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.[3] Consequently, Merian painted with watercolors and gouache, instead of oil.[22]

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.[3]  She published her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (de), in 1705.

To view an online version of this book, go here.

Insect Metamorphosis in Surinam

Science meets heritage: Maria Sibylla Merian, a renowned botanical artist and entomologist, went to Surinam in 1699 to study insects. A very special edition of this book, a so-called pirate edition, is in Wageningen University & Research’s Special Collections.

Because of her careful observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly, David Attenborough [4] considers Maria Sibylla Merian to be among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.

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”.[8]

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.”

Maria Sibylla Merian, Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLIII. “Spiders, ants and hummingbird on a branch of a guava” Source: wikipedia

Hinting at the reason for the  renewed appreciation for Maria Sibylla Merian’s scientific contributions, Andrea Wulf writes in The Atlantic (August 2016),

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:

Slideshow best viewed At Sunnyside


  1. 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.
  2. Andrea Wulf, (August 2, 2016 The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful, The Atlantic, (accessed 28 Dec 2018).
  3. Concordia University’s excellent lesson plans for elementary school children Free lesson plans on Maria Sibylla Merian
  4. Maria Sibylla Merian. (2018, February 10).  In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 10:53, February 13, 2018, from
  5. 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
  6. Wikipedia contributors, “Maria Sibylla Merian,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed Feb. 10, 2018).

Learn More

The Maria Sibylla Merian Society

Thanks for Reading! 🙂


26 Comments Add yours

  1. Next year I hope to see all the stages of the Butterfly, as the Caterpillar undergoes it’s transformation. This year I saw the caterpillar and the butterfly, but missed out on the in between stages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, it is so much fun, Leola! I have many fond memories of watching our caterpillar houses each year with my children. We used the kits, though, which is not quite the same as observing outside, but it was still completely amazing to us. I know you will take pictures, so I look forward to enjoying the miracle again! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes, can’t wait till next summer…God willing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah says:

    Oh! I love her and her art and have read a couple of books about her too. Wasn’t she just such an amazing woman, especially for her time? And her artwork was just exquisite. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Sarah! YES! I agree with you – Maria Sibylla Merian is a woman I really admire. I love to read about her life and have collected books about her for many years. I’m so happy you know her, too! ❤️😎

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sarah says:

        You´re most welcome! 😀 Wishing you a Happy New Year! 😀 ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Happy 2019, Our brand new year! Thank you, Sarah! 😎

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Maria Sibylla Merian, you rock! Thanks for bringing this scientific illustrator to our attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes she does!!! Thanks, Rosaliene! ❤️😎


  4. Love, love, LOVE this!!! She’s AMAZING! 🙂 Thank You.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She is dear to my heart – not just a talented artist and naturalist, but a WOMAN who stepped outside the box society offered in the 1700s — it boggles my mind! Thanks for reading and commenting, forresting. You started my day with smiles! ❤️😎

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Boggles my mind as well. Serious courage! And it’s my pleasure! You’re educating me! 😊🥂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. pirkkotervo says:

    Thanks for sharing this stunning post and portrait 🥀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure! Thanks for visiting, pirkkotervo. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Unfortunately, for some reason, my browser is not allowing me to “like” this post. I always, however, enjoy your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am having the same trouble, Anna. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that my likes on other blogs seemed to be vanishing. Some would not register at all, and others would vanish later. I wonder if this is a browser or wordpress problem (?)….I use firefox and have not tried another browser yet.


  7. rajkkhoja says:

    I visited your site. So interested Blog post. Very nice & wonderful art. Beautiful caterpillar & butterfly 🦋. I like. So Nice historical story and nice all topics write & information . I am so happy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your visit, ragkkhoja! 😎

      Liked by 1 person

      1. rajkkhoja says:

        You are most welcome 🌷!

        Liked by 1 person

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