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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian Self-portrait,
If you're of the typical female persuasion, your reaction to bugs and caterpillars might range from "uuugh" to "eeeeeyyykkkes!" I'm not female but I share those sentiments exactly. Several years ago I had occasion to spend a little time with some elderly ladies at the small apartment complex where my mother-in-law resides. It was a warm, spring evening and they were sitting out on the sidewalk in their lawn chairs chatting. It was also the height of the tent caterpillar season. They were making sport of the furry little worms by zapping them individually as they crawled by with some kind of insect spray, watching them writhe around a little, then curl up and die. I told them about Maria Sibylla Merian.

Butterflies, 1771, Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt Am Main (now in Germany) in 1647. Her father was an artist and publisher. He died when she was three. Her mother remarried another artist, a painter, also an engraver and art dealer from who young Maria learned all there was to know about her stepfather's various arts and interests. When she was sixteen, she married an artist, one of her stepfather's students. They moved to Nuremberg where she built her skills painting on parchment and linen, as well as engraving and embroidering while teaching a number of female art students. It was during this period, doing all this, while at the same time raising a family and keeping a home, that she also began producing detailed copper plates of European flowers in the highly detailed, seventeenth century Dutch style. Between 1675 and 1677, working with her stepfather, she published them in two elegantly illustrated books on the subject. But it was her third publishing effort that earned her a memorable place in both art and science. Entitled Wonderful Transformation, it was published in two volumes, each containing some fifty copperplate engravings cataloging 186 different European moths, butterflies, and insects. Going beyond this, along with each one, she also illustrated on the same page each stage of each insect's metamorphosis along with the plant upon which the caterpillar fed. This was one lady not afraid of, or repulsed by, creepy crawly things. And they were all drawn from life.

Insects of Surinam, 1700, Maria Sibylla Merian
In 1685, her family grown, Maria Merian left her husband and converted to Labadism, a religious sect which eschewed all worldly possessions, so as to allow herself the freedom to study her favorite bugs and worms without the troublesome nuisances of daily life. By 1690 however, perhaps yearning for troublesome nuisances once more, she rejected Labadism, and her husband as well, to move with her daughters to Amsterdam where she again established her reputation as a teacher and painter of various native flora and fauna. But her foremost goal was to raise enough money to travel to the Dutch Colony of Surinam in northern South America where she'd learned there was a whole new world of unexplored caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and other assorted insects to study. In the spring of 1699, at the age of 52, accompanied by her youngest daughter (then just sixteen), she made the trip. Systematically sketching the various six-legged creatures they encountered, along with native flowers, fruit, reptiles and their eggs, the two explored the country entomologically. Although ill health forced Maria to return home after just two years, her daughter remained for another three years to complete her work.

Maria Sibylla Merian's bug book in German, 1719

Some of Maria Sibylla Merian favorites.
Back in Amsterdam, with the help of other engravers to whom she "farmed out" some of the work, the total number of South American engravings eventually reached sixty. These she published in a book titled Metamorphosis Insectorium Surinamensium in 1705. Although it doesn't exactly sound like bedside reading, the book was so popular it came out in a second edition in 1719. The frontispiece (left) was a detailed drawing of her favorite fruit, the pineapple, along with her favorite insect, the albino cockroach (which shared her love of the pineapple). At the time, Maria Merian was acknowledged as the foremost authority in the world on insects, her paintings much sought after by collectors, her knowledge pursued by other scientists. Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717. She left behind a collection of more than 300 paintings which Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, bought as a group, placing them in the first art museum in his country. More recently, Maria Merian's personal journal, which she kept for some 53 years (from the age of 16 to 69), was discovered and published. Her illustrations continued in use in scholarly texts until the advent of high-resolution photography in the 20th century. Having recounted all this to the ladies on the sidewalk with their spray can of insecticide...they were not impressed. Pssssst, another one bites the dust.

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