Strange Floral Food

04 02 maria sibylla merianToday 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.

04 02 maria's catapillar bookAt 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.

04 02 maria's caterpillarsAfter 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.



01 06 doreToday is the birthday of Gustave Doré, who was born in 1832 in Strasbourg, which was then a part of France. Gustave took to drawing at a very young age His earliest dated drawings were made when he was just five and he could make highly elaborate and detailed drawings from memory. He would later turn out to be great at painting and sculpture too. Also he was a pretty good mountain climber, singer, violin player and acrobat. But, just so I don’t make him too annoying, I’ll stick with his illustrations today.

When Doré was fifteen, he visited Paris with his family and he absolutely loved it. During their visit they happened to pass a publishing company, called La Maison Aubert, with some comic drawings displayed in their windows. Gustave hatched a plan. The next day he feigned illness. His family had to go out without him. As soon as they had gone, he made a few sketches, headed straight back to Aubert and into the office of its head publisher, Charles Philipon. He put his drawings on the desk and told Philipon: “This is how that set of illustrations should be done.” Philipon was amused by the boy’s approach, but delighted by the drawings. He called several other people in to look at them. No one could believe they had been done by young Gustave. They asked him to draw more. He quickly dashed off a few sketches. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Philipon would not let the boy leave the office, but tracked down his father and talked him into signing a lucrative contract for his son.

trials of herculesGustave published his first book at age fifteen, his own version of the ‘Trials of Hercules’. Then he began illustrating a magazine published by Aubert called ‘Le Petit Journal Pour Rire’, the little magazine for laughs, which, incidentally, was edited by Félix Nadar who took the above photograph of him. By the time Gustave was seventeen, he was the highest paid comic illustrator in France. He made over 2,000 caricatures whilst he was still in his teens. By the 1850s he wanted to be taken more seriously and moved on to illustration. He produced engravings for works by Rabelais, Balzac and many more for a publisher called Louis Hachette. But still he was searching for something more satisfying. His books were selling well, but none of them sold for more that fifteen Francs. But over the course of five years, he had been working on a much grander project. He was making a series of large illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. dante's infernoIt was a massive undertaking and couldn’t be sold for less than a hundred Francs. Hatchette thought it was a stupid idea, no one would pay that much for a book. But Gustave really wanted to do it. He offered to pay for the printing himself and eventually Hatchette agreed. A thousand copies were printed, but the publisher was so sure they wouldn’t sell that he only bound a hundred of them. A couple of weeks later Gustave received a telegram from Hatchette: “Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!”. The book would eventually run to 200 editions.

Gustave’s illustrations for the Inferno really proved his worth as a serious illustrator. He went on to produce a set of drawings for Perrault’s ‘Fairy Tales’ and ‘The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen’. He also did a set of now definitive illustrations for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for which he travelled to Spain to really get a feel for the places that the story was set.don quixote Almost all subsequent images of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both in books and on film, have been influenced by his work. It was also among his first works to be published in Britain. We took to him immediately here, and in the UK he received a level of recognition in his lifetime that he never really achieved in France. Gustave Doré did not really suit the French art world, he had never trained as an artist and didn’t fit into any particular genre. In his teens he had published a book called ‘Three Artists, Misunderstood Malcontents’ poking fun at serious artists and art critics. It hadn’t really gone down very well, particularly as he was, at the time, more highly paid than the people he was lampooning. Even though he later produced some really beautiful paintings, they still thought of him as little more than an illustrator.

rime of the ancient marinerIn London, however, a gallery was opened specifically to show the works of Gustave Doré in 1867. Initially, it was a five month long exhibition. It ran for twenty-three years. He continued to produce illustrations right through the 1860s, including a set for the Bible which was hugely popular. Also he produced work for the other two parts of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’. He began to get commissions to illustrate works by British authors, among them Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ and Coleridge’s ‘ Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ which is beautiful. His last work was his only American commission, a set of prints for Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ which he was working on at the time of his death in 1883.

His images have wonderfully dramatic quality and have been a massive resource for film makers from the very beginning. Almost every film made about the Bible has referred to his illustrations. We know that Cecil B DeMille had a copy of his Bible prints when he was a child and that it was one of his favourites. Before that, Georges Méliès drew inspiration from his work. So did Jean Cocteau, Ray Harrihausen, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson and many others. I have sought out a few images that remind me of film sets and characters and, with over 100,000 drawings to choose from, there must be hundreds more. Can you guess what these are?