Merian, Maria Sybilla (1647–1717)

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Merian, Maria Sybilla (1647–1717)

German-Dutch entomologist and artist who helped establish the field of entomology, made drawings and writings preeminent in the field, and traveled extensively in South America gathering specimens for her work. Born Maria Sybilla Merian in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on April 2, 1647; died in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on January 13, 1717; daughter of Matthäus Merian (an engraver and topographer) and his second wife, Johanna (Heim) Merian; married Johannes Graf, in 1665 (divorced around 1686); children: Johanna Helena Graf; Dorothea Graf Gsell.

Worked as an artist, engraver, and manufacturer of paints; established reputation as an entomologist and scientific illustrator (c. 1675–78); published illustrated treatise on caterpillars and their food supply (1679); published Neues Blumenbuch (1680); lived as member of Labadist Commune (1678–88); divorced her husband and resumed using her maiden name (1685 or 1686); voyaged to Surinam in South America for scientific study and to illustrate her discoveries (1699–1701); published major scientific work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705).


Florum Fasciculi tres (Flower Collection in Three Parts, c. 1675–1678); The Miraculous Transformations of Caterpillars and Their Strange Flower Nourishment (1679); Neues Blumenbuch (1680); illustrations for Joannes Goedaert's Metamorphosis et historia naturalis insectorum; Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705).

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on April 2, 1647, Maria Sybilla Merian was the daughter of a well-known engraver and topographer, Matthäus Merian, and his second wife, Johanna Heim . Johanna ran the prosperous publishing house inherited through Matthäus's first wife, Maria de Bry , while Matthäus supplied the engraved plates for the firm's published works. The Merian family was large; Maria Sybilla, the eldest child of Johanna and Matthäus, had seven older half-siblings. Before her fourth birthday, her father died, and within the year her mother married Jacob Marrell, a flower painter who had learned his trade in Holland.

Maria Sybilla showed an early interest and ability in drawing, which Marrell recognized and encouraged, despite the fact that her mother wanted her to specialize in needlework. The training she received from her stepfather and his apprentices gave her an entrée into art. Her education was not especially remarkable for the time, since women by then had a significant history of achievement in art, and many were active in painters' guilds. Merian's career differed from that of young men of the time primarily in that she worked solely in the shop of her stepfather rather than traveling and serving as a journeyman to several masters over a period of years. Marrell himself was a prominent artist who traveled frequently and was once away for five years, enabling Maria Sybilla to study under the masters who temporarily took his place. In this way her exposure was broadened, and she became a meticulous observer, well able to accurately reproduce what she saw.

From her early youth, Merian was interested insects, especially in silkworms and their cocoons. The first work on entomology, by Thomas Moufet, had been published only 12 years before her birth, and comparatively little was known at the time about insects. (During Merian's lifetime, the classics were a more respected field of study than were scientific pursuits, with the result that many women who were excluded from studying the classics chose to study science, and that nearly all women and men who studied the sciences were largely selfeducated and forced to finance their studies.) The notion, held since the time of Aristotle, that insects grew spontaneously out of decaying matter, was not dispelled until 1668 (by Francesco Redi), so Merian had the opportunity to make her own discoveries in this very new field. She first kept silkworms, and then other caterpillars, in brood boxes, closely observing their metamorphosis. She then began to document the changes in her paintings and on paper. She learned about the plants on which they fed, and the ideal temperatures for their survival, and eventually studied Latin in order to read contemporary scientific literature.

At 18, Merian married one of her stepfather's pupils, Johannes Andreas Graf of Nuremberg. Three years later their first daughter, Johanna Helena , was born, and the couple moved to Nuremberg. Because Graf was a spendthrift, Merian took up textile painting and embroidery to earn extra income. For her works done on silk and linen (mostly reversible tablecloths, but once also a tent for a general), she developed colorfast paints, extracted from plants and fruit, which were considered outstanding. She shared the secret of their manufacture with another flower painter, Magdalena Furst , giving them both an advantage in the market. Merian also published a number of her designs in a book, Florum Fasciculi tres (Flower Collection in Three Parts), completed between 1675 and 1678.

In 1678, the year her second daughter Dorothea (Dorothea Gsell ) was born, Merian began to engrave the first of 50 plates of the work which would establish her reputation as an entomologist and scientific illustrator. In The Miraculous Transformations of Caterpillars and Their Strange Flower Nourishment, a lengthy introduction explained her long interest in insects. Each insect was depicted on its host plant, and each entry gave detailed observations of the caterpillar's development from pupae to butterfly. Most of the plates for this work were etched by the artist herself, because Merian was afraid to entrust them to artisans less familiar with the material. The quality of the work was helped by the recently developed technology of engraving on copper instead of wood, a technique which

allowed illustrations in much finer detail than had previously been available. Merian invented her own technique for printing, because she wanted the plates to have the more natural effect of watercolor. She first inked a plate and pressed it onto the paper, then pressed a second wetted sheet of paper onto the still freshly inked first paper. The print would thus appear on the second, wetted sheet with the lines softened and unobtrusive and far more natural.

Merian's marriage was probably less than satisfactory. Johannes Graf was beset by legal difficulties, although whether these were caused by debts or embezzlement is not certain. In any case, he left his wife and two daughters, and Merian returned with her children to her family in Frankfurt, where her stepfather had died in 1681. There she published the second part of The Miraculous Transformations under her maiden name.

Merian's half-brother Caspar had become involved with a religious group, the Labadists, or Children of Light, one of many pietist sects which flourished after the Reformation. Caspar Merian was already living in a religious commune established by the Labadists in a castle in West Friesland, in Holland, when Merian, her mother, and daughters joined him there in 1685. There is some question as to whether or not Merian's reasons for joining the commune were purely religious. The Labadists did not believe in formal marriage, and all evidence indicates she was not a strict Labadist but used the sect as a means of escape from her marriage to Johannes Graf. When he visited the commune in 1686 to entreat her to return to him, she refused. From this point on, she stopped using her married name, and she obtained a divorce from Graf. Throughout this time, she had continued her studies of flora and fauna as well as of Latin.

Merian left the Labadist community after it began to break up in 1688. Following the death of her mother in 1691, she gave up her civic rights in Frankfurt and moved to Amsterdam, a rich city engaged in trade in the East and West Indies. There she supported her family by selling her fabric paintings and manufacturing paints, and worked on the preparation of 127 illustrations for Joannes Goedaert's Metamorphosis et historia naturalis insectorum. She also met Caspar Commelin, director of the botanical garden, and began to study the many natural history collections in Amsterdam. Disappointed that only dead specimens were available, Merian decided, at age 52, to go to South America, to study insects in their natural habitat.

In 1699, after an arduous three-month journey, Merian and her daughter Dorothea arrived in the remote Dutch colony of Surinam, on the northernmost rim of South America. The colony boasted a Labadist mission and a capital city, Paramaribo, with "500 houses made of wood and two of brick," so well protected by tangled mangrove swamps that pirates made no attempt to raid it. Merian began to gather specimens from the hot and humid jungle, observe plant and insect life, and to annotate her findings in drawings and notes. She also studied snakes, lizards, wasps, and spiders, at times cutting down trees to obtain her specimens. Meticulously recording her every discovery, she made some startling observations, including the habits of a large hunting spider which attacked and devoured hummingbirds in their nests.

In Surinam, Merian contracted yellow fever and malaria, and was forced to entrust her collection of specimens to others. She gathered much information from the native inhabitants, although sometimes she questioned the scientific truth of what she was told. She also became critical of the planters because of their treatment of the Indians, who told her that "they commit suicide because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land." Merian reported that the planters "mock me, because I am interested in something other than [the growing and selling of] sugar," but she worked in Surinam for two years, until bad health forced her to return to the Netherlands.

In Amsterdam, Merian's specimens—a crocodile, snakes, iguanas, turtles, butterflies and other insects, many never before seen in Europe, and all preserved in brandy—were put on display in the town hall. After selling some specimens and illustrations to recoup the cost of the trip, she completed her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, published in three volumes in 1705. In 60 illustrations, she detailed the life cycles of various caterpillars, worms, maggots, moths, butterflies, beetles, bees, and flies; she also illustrated the plants on which they fed. Production of the work was extremely expensive, as Merian employed the most famous engravers and used the best paper "so that the connoisseur of art as well as the lover of insects could study it with pleasure and joy."

The monumental work created a sensation. Critics praised its "plants never before described or drawn," saying it was the "first and strangest work painted in America." By incorporating her discoveries into an already existing body of

knowledge gathered by Thomas Moufet, Joannes Goedaert, Jan Swammerdam, and others, Merian's work broadened the field of entomology, but she was cautious in the presentation of her findings, because so much of her information differed from standard texts. Careful not to claim too much, she simply presented her observations, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. She also departed from standard scientific practice by using native American rather than Latin plant names. The text sometimes included practical information, a common practice in natural histories of the period; in describing the pineapple, for instance, she wrote, "one eats it raw and cooked, one can make wine and brandy from it." When writing about the cassava root eaten in America by both Indians and Europeans, she wrote, "If the root is eaten raw, one dies of its poisons; if prepared correctly it makes a tasty bread similar to Dutch Zwieback."

By 1771, 19 editions of the tremendously successful Metamorphosis had been published. It became a fixture in natural history libraries as well as in drawing rooms, and remained the main source of information about South America's tropical insects until the end of the century. Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, became one of her greatest admirers, and Christoph Arnold wrote that "what Gesner, Wotton, Penn and Muset have neglected to do has come to life in Germany through the hands of a clever woman."

In 1714, Merian's daughter Johanna and her husband left for Surinam to continue collecting. The following year Merian suffered a stroke, and lived thereafter with Dorothea and her husband George Gsell, a painter and engraver. She died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717, before Johanna's return. Dorothea and her husband were persuaded by Peter the Great to move to his court at St. Petersburg, where they continued Merian's work and trained the painters who accompanied the Danish explorer Vitus Bering on his discovery of the northern route to the Americas.

The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, whose system of classification for plants is still used, cited Merian's work over 100 times in his own work; the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt had his portrait painted holding the flower of a plant species he had named for her. Merian's reputation as a scientist was unblemished until the 19th century, when with the rise of the middle class, which felt women should "remain in their place," it became fashionable to downplay the accomplishments of women. Recently Merian's work has again attracted much attention, and numerous articles have been written about her and her work. In Germany, her scientific achievements were recognized when she was honored with a postage stamp. Illustrations by Merian can be found today in collections in St. Petersburg and the British Museum. To date, six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles have been named for Merian.


Erlanger, Liselotte. "Maria Sybilla Merian. 17th Century Entomologist, Artist, and Traveler," in Insect World Digest. Vol. 3, no. 2. March–April 1976, pp. 12–21.

Phillips, Patricia. The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests 1520–1918. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

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

"A Surinam Portfolio," in Natural History. Vol. 71, no. 10. December 1962, pp. 28–41.

Tufts, Eleanor. Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists. NY: Paddington Press, 1974.

Valiant, Sharon D. "Questioning the Caterpillar," in Natural History. Vol. 101, no. 12. December 1992, pp. 46–59.

Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia