Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Maria Sibylla Merian: Naturalist, Artist, Illustrator

Maria Sibylla Merian (died 13 January 1717)

Maria Sibylla Merrian,
about age 30
Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Maria Sibylla Merian was the daughter of Matthaus Merian, a publisher and engraver; after her father's death, her mother married the painter Jacob Marrel, most well known for his still-life paintings. It was Marrel who seems to have trained and encouraged the young Merian. At age eighteen, Merian married one of her stepfather's pupils, the artist Johann Andreas Graff, and then moved with him to Nuremberg, where she helped to support her young family by teaching drawing and embroidery to young women. 

While living in Nuremberg, Merian published three volumes of botanical illustrations, known collectively as The New Book of Flowers (Neues Blumenbuch). Volume 1 was published in 1675, Volumes 2 and 3 in 1677. In 1679 she published a two-volume study of the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies, The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, or, more simply, The Caterpillar Book (Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung). This publication, with its stunning illustrations, is the result of Merian's careful observations of silkworms, a study that had begun when she was just thirteen.

From The New Book of Flowers
After the death of her stepfather in 1681, Merian and her two daughters returned to her mother's home. From Frankfurt, she relocated with her mother and daughters to Friesland, where they lived with her brother in a religious community. By 1691 she was in Amsterdam, and there she set up a studio with her daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. While in Amsterdam, she was offered the opportunity of travelling to Surinam.

In 1699, she left Amsterdam with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria, for the Dutch colony, where she spent two years studying and sketching. The culminating achievement of her life, her drawings, paintings, and illustrations from her time spent in South America, The Insects of Surinam (Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium), was published in  Amsterdam in 1705.

There are many books about Maria Sibylla Merian in print--biographies, critical analyses, and facsimile reproductions of her work. But, for a wonderful and accessible introduction, I'd suggest looking at the J. Paul Getty Museum online exhibition by clicking here (the museum mounted a Merian exhibition, "Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science," in 2008).

There is also a feast of Merian illustrations available at Google Images. 

A Surinam Cayman

And a Google Doodle from 2 April 2013, in honor of Merian's 366th birthday!

Update: On 23 January 2017, the New York Times published JoAnna Klein's "A Pioneering Woman of Science Re-Emerges after 300 Years." The piece is an excellent survey of Merian's work and is accompanied by wonderful illustrations. To access the story, click here.

Also noted was an international conference on Merian, scheduled for 7-9 June 2017: "Changing the Nature of Science and Art: Intersections with Maria Sibylla Merian." For details, click here.

Finally, Merian's masterwork, The Insects of Surinam, has been republished in a glorious facsimile edition (click here).

Update, 12 January 2023: A helpful friend of the blog has just forwarded information about a recent  exhibition at the Mauritshuis, "In Full Bloom," featuring floral still-life paintings, including those by Merian. For information about the exhibition itself (February to June 2022), this link to the Mauritshuis is still working, and though it is too late now to see the paintings in person, there are a couple of great videos. You may also like this review of the exhibition from ArtNet.