Friday, January 16, 2015

WOMEN ARTISTS: Maria Sibylla Merian

The 1st artist in my series of Women Artists --


Here are 10 Things to know about Maria Sibylla Merian, along with 10 examples of her work:

1 - Maria Sibylla Merian was a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator.  In fact, she is rated as being one of the greatest ever botanical artists and one of the first naturalists to study insects. 

Her hand-colored engravings are as important to the history of science as they are to the history of art.  She is especially known for her documentation of butterfly metamorphosis.

Fearless, adventurous, and ahead of her time, she made a unique contribution to the visual understanding of flowers and insects in the 17th century.  

2 - Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647.  Her father, the Swiss engraver and publisher Matthaus Merian the Elder, died when she was 3.  

Her mother married Flemish flower/still life painter Jacob Marell, who noticed his stepdaughter's talent and encouraged her to draw and paint -- even helping with her artistic education.

3 -- It all started with Merian's boundless enthusiasm for flowers and micro-creatures.  At the age of 13, she painted her first images of insects and plants from specimens she had captured.  

She says she "collected all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed".

4 - At the age of 18, Merian married Marrel's apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff, who also specialized in flower still lifes.  

The couple moved to Nuremberg, had two daughters, but were divorced some time during the 1690's. 

5 - Merian published her first book of natural illustrations, Neues Blumenbuch, or New Book of Flowers -- in 1675, at the age of 28.

These are flower studies of incomparable elegance.  The illustrations were also used as pattern books for painting and embroidery.

The book was so popular that it had to be reprinted.  

6 - Merian was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly, which was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time.

In 1677, she published her 2nd collection of engravings, "The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation, & Strange Floral Food".  

She carefully studied living examples of 186 kinds of European moths and butterflies, recording their appearance and activities at various stages in their life cycles.  She demonstrated the life cycle of the butterfly and how it transforms from a caterpillar into a butterfly.  

Her detailed illustrations provided a wealth of new information for the scientific community, and her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today.

7 - In 1699, at the age of 52, she took on a more exotic project, when she sailed with her daughter to the Dutch colony of Surinam in northern South America -- where she spent two years compiling a study of insect life-cycles and habitats there.  

While there, she traveled around the colony and sketched and catalogued the indigenous plants, animals, and insects.  While there, she also criticized the treatment of the natives and slaves by the Dutch planters in the colony.

In 1701, malaria (possibly) forced her to return to Holland.

8 - After she returned, her vividly descriptive and scientifically accurate engravings documenting her research were published. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, published in 1705, was an impressive volume of her watercolor paintings and useful commentaries.

This was her major work on insects (and the first work on the natural history of Surinam).  This was a fantastic world of wonders in watercolors, full of accurate detail and minute renderings of butterflies, beetles, and insects.

9 - Merian's legacy was her important contributions to both art and science -- through her original observations about the natural world, conveyed in elegantly composed and beautifully detailed illustrations.  

She is considered among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.  Because of her careful observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly -- her work disproved the then-popular theory that insects were born by spontaneous generation.

10 - Shortly before Merian's death in 1717, her work was seen in Amsterdam by Peter the Great.  After her death, he acquired a significant number of her paintings, which to this day are kept in academic collections in St. Petersburg.


  1. Your idea to feature these women artists will provide us with inspiration as well as information about some artists we don't know much about. Thanks so much.

  2. This was a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing it and I look forward to more!

  3. Wow! This was an extraordinary woman. The scientific side of her work is awesome, but her illustrations are so beautifully rendered as to stand alone artistically - I am so impressed. It is a shame that we have not heard of her before. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for sharing this post. Fascinating!

  5. I love this and have high expectations for the future posts. This approach is long over due, too. Women have earned their place in the art world - and should be there, contrary to the opinion of most males. They are threatened!

  6. Thanks, everyone, for your encouraging comments -- I certainly enjoyed finding out about Maria Sibylla Merian, too -- and seeing her wonderful body of work. She is definitely inspiring!