Maria Sibylla Merian- An Avant-Garde of Entomology
Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th century German artist and naturalist. During her lifetime Maria’s work with insects led to major breakthrough understandings in entomology. Her life and successes challenged contemporary thought in both science and larger society. Her work continues to inspire and influence artists and entomologists today. I came across her and her work while clicking around on Pinterest, and what I discovered absolutely thrilled me.
NOTE: Throughout this post I refer to Maria Sibylla Merian simply by her first name, Maria, because this is a blog and not academia.
Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian was born on the 2nd of April 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, to Johanna Sibylla Heim and Mathias Merian. Maria’s father passed away in 1650 when Maria was just three years old. Her mother soon remarried in 1651 to the botanical and still-life painter Jacob Marrel. Throughout her childhood Maria’s step-father encouraged her to draw and paint (most probably in watercolours, due to the gender divide in art at that time).
At just 13 years old Maria created her first paintings illustrating plant and insect life. She raised silkworms collected from the mulberry bush in the family garden and used these along with other specimens to observe metamorphosis. She began to make connections between insects and the plants they chose to frequent.
A Blossoming Artist and Naturalist
When she was around 18 Maria married her step-father’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff. They had their first child, Johanna Helena, in 1668 and moved to Nuremburg shortly after. Now in her twenties Maria continued to pursue her artistic endeavours. She created paintings and engravings on both parchment and linen, as well as embroidery designs. Her career also led her to teach drawing to unmarried women from rich families of the upper classes. These class connections provided her access to lush gardens full of inspiring specimens for her entomological studies.
Maria’s first book of engravings entitled Neues Blumenbuch (New Book of Flowers) was published in 1675. Just two years later in 1677 her second book of engravings was published. This book was Der Raupen Wunderbare Verwandlung und Sonderbare Blumennhrung (The Caterpillar’s Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food). It focused specifically on caterpillars, butterflies, moths, metamorphosis and the host plants of lepidopteran larvae. What this publication presented was revolutionary, as Maria was the first naturalist to observe and illustrate living specimens with their host plants. She included precise annotations to describe her observations at every stage of metamorphosis. Through her intense research Maria was able to demonstrate that insects did not spontaneously generate from dirt, which was the prevailing belief at the time (see this post here for a quick look at the process of metamorphosis).
In 1681 Maria moved back to Frankfurt with her husband and two daughters (her second had been born in 1678) to support her mother after her step-father’s death. Four years later she left her husband and joined a Labadist colony in Wiewert with her mother and daughters. Maria was a very religious woman and the Labadists attracted her with their emphasis on devout, sober and communal living. It is suggested that Maria’s connection with moths and butterflies was influenced by her piety, and that she saw their life cycles as a metaphor for humankind’s relationship with God: the caterpillar represents man, the pupa is man’s death, and the butterfly or moth is the release of man’s soul to God.
Amsterdam and Suriname
After the death of her mother, Maria and her daughters left the Labadist commune and moved to Amsterdam. There she set up her first studio and made her living by selling her illustrations and teaching drawing and painting. 1699 was a major year for Maria. The city of Amsterdam awarded the artist a grant that would allow her and her youngest daughter to travel to Suriname in South America and conduct research on the local flora and fauna. Maria also sold over 200 of her own paintings to help fund the five year research trip. The aims of the trip were to observe, illustrate and consequently publish an account of the plants, insects and animals of Suriname.
This pursuit of international research was incredibly unusual for several reasons. Maria was 52 years old at the time, divorced and independent with no formal education, and women rarely (if ever) received government funding.
In the same year as receiving the grant, Maria and her daughter set off on the 7 724 km, three months long trip to Suriname. Unfortunately due to malaria they could only stay for two out of the five proposed years and returned to Amsterdam in 1701. Despite the research trip being unexpectedly cut short the two women still suceeded in collecting prolific findings and returned with extensive sketches and notes from their fieldwork.
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium
Back in Amsterdam Maria sold her collected specimens from Suriname in order to complete her research. With the help from both of her daughters as well as three printmakers she spent the years between 1701 and 1705 creating 60 engravings based on her sketches for a publication on Suriname’s insect, plant and animal life. She self-funded this project through sales of her art and appeals to subscribers, who could pay in advance to secure their own copy of the publication. Maria finally published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium in 1705 with Latin and Dutch versions. She made these both available with either coloured or uncoloured plates. As with her earlier works, Maria depicted the insects of Suriname in various stages of development and metamorphosis with their host plants.
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was an absolutely groundbreaking work in the science world and it brought Maria some of the recognition that she deserved. It also appears that Maria was a strategic business woman and she promoted her book regularly in newspapers before and after its publication. She offered early bird price deals and presented her target market with the opportunity to view her original sketches and specimens in her studio.
Death and Obscurity
In 1715 Maria suffered a stroke that left her partially paralysed but still able to continue with her work, albeit in a limited manner. Sadly she died two years later on the 13th of January 1717 at the age of 70. The death register listed her as a pauper. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was republished in 1719, and some of her other works were also republished in the 18th century. However, according to Michelle Duennes from the ‘Entomology Today’ blog, Maria’s work became forgotten as future entomologists were reticent to cite her research. This was largely due to her gender and lack of formal education. In addition, scientists often ignored her findings as she did not publish her work in Latin, the language of science. (Personal interjection: THIS IS SO MESSED UP)
In the 20th century scientists rediscovered and validated Maria Sibylla Merian’s work. The 500 Deutsche Mark bill honoured Maria by bearing her portrait before Germany’s conversion to the Euro. Maria has also been celebrated in science. 30 years after the publication of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Carl Linnaeus created the universal classification system that categorises living things into Kingdom, Class, Order, Genus and Species. Several taxa, two genera, and a number of species have been named after Maria Sibylla Merian:
- A genus of mantises are named Sibylla; a genus of flowering plants are named Meriana
- Heliconius melpomene meriana- the common postman butterfly
- Opsiphanes cassina merianae- the split-banded owlet butterfly
- Erinnys merianae- the Cuban sphinx moth
- Plisthenes merianae- a bug without a common name
- Avicularia merianae- a bird-eating spider
- Metellina merianae- a spider
- Salvator merianae- a black and white tegu lizard from Argentina
- Rhinella merinae- the cane toad
- Coquandiella meriana- a snail
- Saxicola torquatus sibilla- the Madagascan African stonechat bird
Innovations and Contributions
Maria Sibylla Merian was the first naturalist to illustrate live insects in their natural environments. Maria made major contributions towards the understanding of metamorphosis. Her findings disproved contemporary thought that insects spontaneously generated from mud. Additionally she noted larval shedding, cocoon formation and the effects of the climate on the process of metamorphosis.
She illustrated her lepidopterae through their full life cycles from egg to moth or butterfly. Her illustrations included both male and female adult lepidopterae, different wing positions and colourings and the proboscises of feeding insects. Maria also depicted her lepidopterae in their natural habitats with larval food plants and the damage caused to the plants. She supported these observational connections by conducting experiments to prove that some larvae can only consume one type of plant. Others preferred a particular plant but could tolerate others. A few of her specimens would even eat each other for sustenance if deprived of their host plant.
We cannot refute Maria Sibylla Merian’s contributions to science and entomology in particular. It is so important to appreciate her dedication and intense pursuit of knowledge in both her art and naturalist studies, especially considering her context. 17th and 18th century society did not encourage female excellence and the sciences were a boys’ club. Perhaps it was her position as an “amateur” that allowed her to break away from accepted approaches to scientific illustration and research. (Another personal interjection: the word amateur comes from the Latin amatorem/ amator, meaning “lover”. To be an amateur means to pursue an activity out of love)
A Personal Note
Maria and her art, passion, dedication and independence have emboldened me to walk my path bravely and unapologetically. She flew in the face of convention and gave the middle finger to expectations and restrictions. It has been 301 years since Maria died and she still influences and inspires artists and scientists, women and men, amateurs and professionals the world over.
For further reading, all of the following articles are fantastic:
Famous Female Entomologists Part 4: Maria Sybilla Merian, the Mother of Entomology, by Michelle Duennes
Maria Sibylla Merian, by Kara Rogers
Maria Sibylla Merian, from the Koninklije Bibliotheek website (The National Library of the Netherlands)
About Maria Sibylla Merian, a concise timeline of Maria’s life on the Botanical Art and Artists website
The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful, by Andrea Wulf
And of course, Wikipedia has some great information and references to follow.