Today I am celebrating the birthday of Maria Sibylla Merian, who was born in 1647 in Frankfurt. Maria was a painter and a naturalist with a particular interest in insects. Her family ran one of the largest publishing houses in seventeenth century Europe. When she was three, her father died and her mother remarried. Her step father was a still life painter named Jacob Marrel and he encouraged her to paint. At thirteen, she began to paint the plants and caterpillars that she found near her home. She became interested in their life cycles and what sort of plants they fed on.
At that time it was commonly believed that, as Aristotle had suggested, insects sprang fully formed from mud, dew or even books by a process that was known as spontaneous generation. People thought that caterpillars came from cabbages and maggots from rotting meat. Insects were thought of as generally awful and, apart from a handful of academics nobody had really wanted to have a proper look at them. So Maria’s interest was an unusual one.
At sixteen, she married one of her step father’s apprentices but, although they had two daughters, it wasn’t a particularly happy union. They moved to Nuremberg and she continued to paint, her flower illustrations were also used as designs for embroidery. Also she gave drawing lessons to young women from wealthy families. This gave her access to a lot of splendid gardens where she could continue her insect studies. Between 1675 and 1677 she published three volumes of flower paintings called ‘Neues Blumenbuch’ (New book of flowers). In 1679 she published a book about the metamorphosis of insects. ‘Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung’ (The Caterpillars’ Marvellous Transformation and Strange Floral Food) was particularly popular amongst high society, especially so because it was written in German. It was ignored by scientists for the same reason. They couldn’t take it seriously unless it was in Latin.
After six years of living in a religious community, where it turned out her husband wasn’t welcome, she moved to Amsterdam with her daughters in 1691 and was divorced from her husband a year later. There she continued to teach. One of her pupils was Rachel Ruysch, daughter of Frederick who I mentioned a few days ago. Rachel helped him decorate his peculiar anatomical specimens and later became a well known flower painter. In Amsterdam, Maria had access many ‘cabinets of curiosity’ which were a sort of forerunner of the museum. She certainly saw Frederick Ruysch’s collection. But what she was particularly interested in were the amazing collections of insects and tropical plants that had been brought back from the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. But rather than look at a single butterfly, pinned to a board and isolated from it’s environment, she decided she wanted to study them in their natural habitat.
By 1699 she had been able to secure permission from the government to travel to Suriname and spend five years illustrating new species of insects. This was rather unusual, as official expeditions were only made for political, economic or military reasons. People just didn’t go exploring for purely scientific purposes, not even the men. She funded the journey herself by selling 255 of her paintings and when she went, she took her youngest daughter with her.
There, Maria travelled around the colony, sketching the animals and plants. She recorded the local names for them and found out what all the plants were used for. She also criticised the Dutch colonists for their poor treatment of the local population. In 1701, she contracted malaria and was forced to return home. In her two years she had discovered and documented many new species that were unknown in Europe and in 1705 she published ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’. which illustrated her findings.
During her life she described the life cycles of 186 insects and her illustrations were unusual in that they depicted the whole life cycle in a single illustration together with the plant that the insect feeds on. She painted, not just a single specimen,but a tiny ecosystem. Peter The Great was a huge admirer of her work and many of her paintings still reside in academic collections in St Petersburg.