Merian, Maria Sibylla (1647–1717)

views updated May 23 2018


MERIAN, MARIA SIBYLLA (16471717), German artist and naturalist. Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt into a family with a distinguished history in the visual arts, particularly with respect to the study and exploration of the natural world. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, inherited a prosperous publishing house from Jean Théodore de Bry, whose America (Frankfurt, 1590) presented some of the earliest images of the peoples, plants, and animals of North America to European audiences. Maria Sibylla's half-brothers Matthäus Merian the Younger and Kaspar Merian took over the family business after the death of their father and continued to publish illustrated works of natural history and other subjects. In 1651 Maria Sibylla's mother married Jacob Marrel, an artist who had studied with several prominent German and Dutch still-life painters.

Merian combined her interest in studying the processes of nature with the creation of visual images and from an early age showed an avid interest in insects. She received her artistic training in the workshop of her stepfather Jacob Marrel and in 1665 married Johann Andreas Graff, a painter who had apprenticed in her stepfather's workshop. The couple lived in Nuremberg between 1665 and 1670, where Merian taught painting and embroidery to young women, and where she published the first of her three major works, the Neues Blumenbuch (Nuremberg, 16751680), a series of copperplate engravings of flowers for use as models for embroidery and needlework. Merian began publication of her second major work in 1679, when the first volume of her Raupenbuch series appeared, which focused on the life cycles of European caterpillars and butterflies.

In 1686 Merian, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in northern Germany known as the Labadists. It has been suggested that Merian joined the group in part to escape the marital difficulties she had been experiencing with Graff, from whom she was divorced several years later. Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam in 1691 and began planning a voyage to the Dutch colony of Surinam; in June 1699 Merian and her grown daughter Dorothea Maria set sail for South America. Merian is best known for the illustrated publication that resulted from this voyage, the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Amsterdam, 1705). Merian's compositions presented startling scenes of insects and plants previously unknown to Europeans and highlighted both the life cycles of individual insects and the struggles for survival between insects, plants, and other animals. The brightly colored forms and striking features of Merian's insects provided a disturbing yet fascinating vision of the New World for European readers. Merian's focus on the relationships between insects and plants and their environment had a strong influence on natural history illustration during the eighteenth century, as can be seen in the illustrations for The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London, 17311743) published by the English artist and naturalist Mark Catesby.

See also Natural History ; Scientific Illustration ; Women .


Primary Sources

Merian, Maria Sibylla. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Edited by Elixabeth Rücker and William T. Stearn. London, 1980. Two-volume facsimile edition of the 1705 Amsterdam edition with reproductions of Merian's watercolor drawings and important scholarly essays.

. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Amsterdam, 1705.

. Neues Blumenbuch. 3 vols. Nuremberg, 1680.

. Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung. . . . 3 vols. Vol. 1, Nuremberg, 1679; vol. 2, Frankfurt, 1683; vol. 3, Amsterdam, 1717. Commonly cited as Raupenbuch.

Secondary Sources

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "Metamorphoses: Maria Sibylla Merian." In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives, pp. 140216. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Rücker, Elisabeth. Maria Sibylla Merian, 16471717. Nuremberg, 1967.

Wettengl, Kurt, ed. Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist and Naturalist, 16471717. Ostfildern, 1998.

Janice L. Neri

Merian, Maria Sibylla

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 4 April 1647; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, 13 January 1717),

entomology, botany, natural history, ethnography.

Merian, a leading naturalist, was bold to travel to Surinam, then a Dutch colony, in 1699 at the age of fifty-two in search of exotic plants and insects. Merian was one of the few—and perhaps the only European woman— who voyaged exclusively in pursuit of her science in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Accompanied only by her twenty-one-year-old daughter Dorothea Maria, whom she trained from childhood as a painter and assistant, Merian collected, studied, and drew insects and plants of the region for two years. Returning to Amsterdam, Merian published her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, which included sixty illustrations detailing the reproduction and development of various insects. In addition to broadening significantly the empirical base of European entomology, Merian’s text and glorious illustrations also captured for Europeans “plants never before described or drawn” (commentary to plate 35). Her work was much celebrated in her time for its empirical accuracy and artistic brilliance.

The daughter of the well-known artist and engraver, Matthäus Merian the elder, Merian learned the techniques of illustrating—drawing, mixing paints, and etching copperplates—in her father’s workshop. It was this training in art that gave Merian her entrée to science; the primary value of her studies of insects derived from her ability to capture in fine detail what she observed. In early modern science, women commonly served as observers and illustrators. The recognized need for exact observation

in astronomy, botany, zoology, and anatomy in this period made that work particularly valuable.

Although Merian married Johann Graff, an apprentice to her stepfather Jacob Marrel, in 1665, she functioned throughout her life as an independent woman directing her own business interests, training young women in her trade, experimenting with technique, and following her own scientific interests. In Nürnberg, Frankfurt, and later Amsterdam she established thriving businesses—selling fine silks, satins, and linens painted with flowers of her own design. In Nürnberg, Merian also began her scientific career with the publication of her Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare (Wonderful transformation and special nourishment of caterpillars) in 1679. In fifty copperplates, she drew the life cycle of each caterpillar—from egg to caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly—attempting to capture each change of skin and hair and the whole of their life cycle. From a financial point of view, Merian undertook her study of caterpillars in an attempt to find other varieties that, like the silkworm, could be used to produce fine thread. Though she claimed to have found such a caterpillar in Surinam, she never brought it into production.

Merian’s second book, Neues Blümenbuch (1680), featured flowers drawn from life designed to provide guild artists with designs for painting and embroidery. Merian was renowned for both the new techniques she developed to enhance the durability of her colors and her new printing techniques developed to capture the living beauty of flowers.

In the mid-1680s, Merian (or “Graffin,” as she called herself) divorced her husband, reclaimed her father’s famous name, and moved with her two daughters to the utopian Labadist community. Merian was no doubt active in the community’s self-sufficient economy: baking bread, weaving cloth, and printing books. During her ten-year stay, she also sharpened her scientific skills, learning Latin and studying the flora and fauna sent from the Labadist colony in Surinam (she later used these connections for her journey to South America).

Voyage to Surinam . Having studied insects since the age of thirteen, Merian moved in 1691 to Amsterdam, the hub of Dutch global commerce, to study the city’s rich natural history collections. Here Merian prepared 127 illustrations for a French translation of Johann Goedart’s Metamorphosis et historia naturalis insectorum. She also met Caspar Commelin, director of the botanical garden, who would later assist her in adding Latin plant names and bibliography to the text of her Metamorphosis. Disappointed that Dutch natural history collections displayed only dead specimens, Merian set out to do her own research: “This all resolved me to undertake a great and expensive trip to Surinam (a hot and humid land) where these gentlemen had obtained these insects, so that I could continue my observations” (Merian, 1705, An Den Leser).

Like other naturalists of the period, Merian relied on Amerindians and African slaves for assistance in bio-prospecting: in finding, identifying, and procuring choice specimens. In her Metamorphosis she emphasized—as was common in this period—information given directly to her by the Indians. These included uses of plants in medicine (cotton and senna leaves cured wounds; seeds of the peacock flower induced abortions), foods (a recipe for Cassava bread), buildings, clothing, and jewelry. Ship lists indicate that Merian brought her “Indian woman” with her to Amsterdam, but nothing more is known about this woman.

Overcome with malaria, Merian was forced to leave Surinam in 1701 sooner than she had intended. Her trip was a great success for both her science and business. In addition to publishing her Metamorphosis, she enlarged her trade in exotic specimens. Before leaving Surinam, she arranged with a local man to continue to supply her with all manner of butterflies, insects, fireflies, iguanas, snakes, and turtles for sale in Amsterdam. A number of Merian’s brandy-preserved own specimens were displayed in the town hall.

Merian financed her own research and scientific projects. She spared no expense in preparing her Surinam volume, which she sold by subscriptions. Well received by the learned world, Merian’s three books appeared in a total of twenty editions between 1680 and 1771.

Merian left her mark on entomology. Six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles are named for her. Her training and skills did not die with her, but were carried on by her daughters who completed the third volume of her Surinam book. In 1717, her daughter Dorothea Maria moved to Saint Petersburg, where she and her husband, George Gsell, became court painters. Their daughter (Merian’s granddaughter) eventually married Leonard Euler.



Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare. Nürnberg, 1679.

Neues Blümenbuch. Nürnberg: J.A. Graffen, 1680.

Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Amsterdam, 1705.


Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Metamorphoses: Maria Sibylla Merian.” In Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Pfister-Burkhalter, Margarete. Maria Sibylla Merian, Leben und Werk 1647–1717. Basel, Switzerland: GS-Verlag, 1980.

Rücker, Elisabeth. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717): Ihr Wirken in Deutschland und Holland. Bonn, Germany: Presseund Kulturabteilung der Kgl. Niederländischen Botschaft, 1980.

Schiebinger, Londa. “Scientific Women in the Craft Tradition.” In The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

_____. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Ullmann, Ernst, ed. Leningrader Aquarelle. 2 vols. Leipzig, Germany: Edition Leipzig, 1974.

Wettengl, Kurt, ed. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717): Artist and Naturalist. Ostfildern, Germany: G. Hatje, 1998.

Londa Schiebinger

Maria Sibylla Merian

views updated Jun 08 2018

Maria Sibylla Merian

The work of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), particularly the illustrations from her devoted study of insects, remain the standard by which contemporary artists and naturalists are judged.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany on April 2, 1647. She belonged to a very talented family of engravers and painters. Her Swiss father, Matthew Merian, was a draughtsman, printmaker, and publisher. Her older brother, also Matthew, was a successful painter. Merian's father died in 1650, when she was just three years old. Her stepfather, James Morell, was an accomplished Dutch painter, engraver, and art dealer who took on the responsibility for her education. He spent hours teaching Merian the art of flower painting. Merian developed a fascination with insects and began studying them obsessively. To her mother's displeasure, Morell encouraged this passion, which was considered to be an inappropriate subject for proper young ladies of the 17th century.

By the time she was 14, Merian left for Nuremberg to study with two famous artists, Abraham Mignon and Johann Graff. Both were former students and friends of Morell. Four years later, in 1868, Merian married Graff. They had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. Disturbed by her husband's repeated infidelity, she separated from Graff in 1685. Taking her daughters to the Netherlands, she joined her half-brother, Caspar Merian, in a communal religious sect (the Labadist community) that rejected worldly goods. By 1691, Merian obtained a divorce from Graff, rejected the Labadists, and took her daughters to Amsterdam. Merian supported her family by painting flowers, birds, and insects, teaching young women, and turning her paintings into embroidery patterns. She was even able to save enough money for a trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam in order to study insect specimens. Merian set sail in June 1699 with her daughter, Dorothea Maria. She was admired for her boldness in undertaking a dangerous three-month journey at the age of 52. The tropical paradise became her studio and laboratory. Merian and her daughter studied local customs and tried to find an economic use for their plants. She survived a bout with malaria during her time in Surinam. Frail health eventually forced an end to her two-year stay. Merian returned to Amsterdam in September 1701. Her daughter remained in Surinam for five more years to continue her mother's work.

Back in Amsterdam, Merian set about her monumental task of putting together her book on the metamorphoses of the exotic Surinam insects. In his entry on Merian, Ludwig said that, "she employed professional engravers for the large-sized plates done after her paintings." Ludwig went on to note that, "She wrote the descriptions herself, but the director of the Amsterdam botanical garden, Caspar Commelin, determined the species of the plants. The appearance of the Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium, in 1705 caused a sensation. The beautiful, life-size plates showed the exotic insects in previously unpublished states and in their natural surroundings. The 62 plates and the careful descriptions kindled the imagination of natural history collectors, who knew the species only from dried specimen." Merian was the first to record such observations on insect metamorphosis. According to Haley and Steele in 1843, nearly 150 years following the book's publication, Jardine wrote in The Naturalists Library, that Merian's pictures "have not been surpassed by any works of art of a similar description, by the moderns, to whom her method of arranging and combining her figures may serve as a lesson. Her manner of introducing the insects in their various stages of metamorphosis, in connection with the plants upon which they feed, is, in our opinion, not only very instructive but extremely elegant, and her skill in composition has almost invariably led her to do this in an artist-like pleasing way." Merian did not simply paint her subjects. Her interest in the work led her to collect and breed her own collection in order to study and paint them.

The last years of Merian's life had been devoted to her work, The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and their Singular Plant Nourishment, in a two-volume Dutch edition. Merian died of a stroke in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea Maria sold all of her mother's work to Johannes Oosterwijk, a publisher in Amsterdam. In 1717, Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, bought 300 of her paintings and opened the first art museum in Russia in order to display them. At the time of her death, Merian had been working on 12 drawings for publication, which were added to her work on the insects of Surinam, and published by her daughter in 1719. A second edition, with text in Latin, French, and Dutch, followed in 1726.

Scientific Notoriety

When Merian published her major work, Wonderful Transformation and Singular Flower-Food of Caterpillars, in 1679, the scientific community began to take serious notice of her work. She had already published a two-volume book called Florum Fasciculi tres, and was considered to be an accomplished artist. Yet Wonderful Transformation was the book that "revolutionized zoology and botany," according to a profile from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. With 50 copperplate engravings in each of the two volumes, 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." According to Heidrun Ludwig, in Dictionary of Women Artists, her accomplishments were recognized for their scientific importance in her lifetime and throughout the 18th century. However, by the 19th and early 20th centuries, Merian was regarded with an "image of a harmless and gentle flower painter, adsorbed in the meditation of butterflies and flowers." Her merits as a natural historian were concealed. By the end of the 20th century that view had undergone a further transformation and her work was judged in a broader context. Today, Merian's works are on display around the world, from London to St. Petersburg, as well as in museums throughout the United States. Her careful attention to detail and keen observation help to explain why her paintings continue to received this acclaim.

Further Reading

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives. Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dictionary of Women Artists, edited by Delia Gaze, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Natural History, December 1992.

Center for Global Environmental Education, Hamline University, St. Paul, MN. "Maria Sibylla Merian," 1999. Available at:

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Edition 5, 1993. Available at:

Haley and Steele. "Maria Sibylla Merian." Available at: National Museum of Women in the Arts. "Maria Sibylla Merian."Available at: □

Maria Sibylla Merian

views updated Jun 08 2018

Maria Sibylla Merian


German naturalist who devoted her life to the study and painting of insects and flowers. As a child she was fascinated by caterpillars, moths, and butterflies, and made numerous lifelike sketches. In 1679 she published "Wonderful Transformation and Singular Flower-Food of Caterpillars," which won her scientific recognition for its catalog and drawings of almost 200 European butterflies and moths in various stages of metamorphosis. Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717.

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Maria Sibylla Merian