Thursday, September 20, 2007
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Merian's paintings and prints of flowers, fruits, insects, and reptiles have long been discussed within artistic circles. The scientific community equally recognized her enormous contribution to the natural sciences when she published her Raupen or Wonderful Transformation and Singular Flower-Food of Caterpillars in 1679. Despite the obvious intertwining of Merian's artistic and scientific endeavors, only relatively recently have art historians, historians, and scientists begun to examine her works and her unconventional life as a totality.
Johanna Sibylla Heim gave birth to Maria Sibylla in Frankfurt am Main in 1647. Merian's father, Mathias Merian the elder, an artist and publisher, died three years later. Her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter, engraver, and art dealer.(2) Merian consequently grew up surrounded by an abundant collection of prints, paintings, and books and benefited from her stepfather's artistic instruction. As was also typical for the daughters of artists, she married another artist, Johan Andreas Graff, her stepfather's student. After moving to Nuremberg, Merian continued her painting on parchment and linen, her engraving, and embroidery and taught a group of female students.(3) During this period she also produced detailed copperplates of European flora which derived heavily from the seventeenth-century Dutch still life tradition. In 1675 and 1677 Jacob Marrel published these works in two volumes entitled Florum Fasciculi tres, and in 1680 they were republished together as Neues Blumen Buch.
The Neues Blumen Buch does not give any hint of the tenor or breadth of Merian's next book, Wonderful Transformation, published in two volumes, each with fifty copperplate engravings. The book catalogued 186 European moths, butterflies, and other insects showing on a single page each insect in all stages of metamorphosis, on or near the single plant upon which it fed and laid its eggs. The book revolutionized zoology and botany in that Merian drew and painted insects from life rather than from preserved specimens in collectors' cabinets.(4)
The rest of Merian's life and ideas was also pioneering. In 1685 she left her husband and converted to Labadism, a religious sect that among other beliefs, eschewed worldly goods. By 1690 Merian seems to have rejected Labadism, obtained a divorce from Andreas Graff, and moved with her daughters to Amsterdam where she began to reestablish her reputation as a teacher and a painter of flowers, insects, and birds. Merian was unusual as a successful independent woman in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. But her desire to sell a collection of her paintings and her specimens in order to finance a trip to the far flung Dutch colony of Surinam in northern South America must be considered even more astonishing.
After seeing insects from Surinam in Dutch collections, the fifty two year old Merian went there in the late spring of 1699 with one of her daughters, Dorothea Maria. As she had done with her studies of caterpillars and moths, Merian for two years sketched and painted on vellum Surinamese flowers, fruit, insects, insect eggs, chrysalises, reptiles, and reptile eggs. When she returned to Amsterdam after nearly two years, Merian executed only a few of the engravings and had other engravers executed the majority of the sixty copper plates.
Merian first published her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium or Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam in 1705. This volume was so popular that a second edition entitled Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam came out in 1719, a copy of which is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Merian began her book with an illustration of a pineapple because, as the accompanying text tells the reader, "the pineapple is easily first among all edible fruits of the world. Properly it begins the series, both in the arrangement of this work and of my observations." Elaborating upon her illustration she describes the pineapple "flowering....Its small and variegated foliage which the fruit lies next to, resemble red silk decorated with yellow spots; the soft sprouts at the sides grow last after the mature fruit is picked...." Yet despite the beauty of the pineapple as Merian illustrated and described it, the focus of her treatise was insect life, and in the same illustration Merian explores the albino cockroach "of all the insects in America the most noteworthy...a pest, because they are ubiquitous and destructive and troublesome to the inhabitants." She depicts the cockroach sitting upon the green leaf of the pineapple a "food sweet to them," as well as an egg sack which the "female...carries in a certain sack under its hidden belly."
From her studies and publications Merian became renowned and sought after for her paintings and scientific knowledge. She spent the last years of her life preparing a version of her European insect study in Dutch, adding a few more observations. Merian died in 1717 and Dorothea Maria sold all her mother's pictures, plates, and texts to Johannes Oosterwijk, a publisher in Amsterdam. In the hands of Oosterwijk who published previously unseen text and illustrations, and translated Merian's work into other languages, Merian continued to contribute to the sciences and art long after her death. [Adapted from National Museum of Women in the Arts]
1. Maria Sibylla Merian quoted in Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 144.
2. Davis, Women on the Margins, 142.
3. Davis, Women on the Margins, 145.
4.Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 123.
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