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Maria Sibylla Merian: the artist who challenged the natural world

Born into an artistic family and with a childhood fascination with all things flora and fauna, Maria Sibylla Merian revealed natural wonders through a blend of exquisite art and scientific observation. The result, writes Ellie Cawthorne, was a pioneering shift in how the natural world was perceived and studied...

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian, by Jacob Marrel, 1679 (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Published: February 4, 2022 at 7:05 am
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Somewhere in the bustling streets of 17th-century Frankfurt, a teenage girl was keeping watch over her collection of caterpillars, making detailed notes and sketches as they shed their skins “just as a person pulls off a shirt over his head”.

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This batch of silkworms was the latest of many that she had reared in small paper houses, in a slow process of trial and error. But nursing them to maturity was no easy task. “You must take great pains to care for them,” noted the girl. “If a storm comes, you must cover them; otherwise they will get jaundice and dropsy. They will also die when you give them too much to eat.”

The curiosity, diligence and determination shown by Maria Sibylla Merian in raising these caterpillars into pearly white moths would grow as the years passed into something new, much like those tiny subjects of her fascination. The girl who kept a caterpillar collection would become a pioneering naturalist, who travelled to unexplored lands in search of natural wonders, and reimagine the ways that insects and plants could be illustrated.

Born in 1647, Merian was inducted into the art world from a young age. Her father Matthäus ran a respected Frankfurt printing house, then after his death, her mother married the still-life painter and art dealer Jacob Marrel.

Although her gender meant that she couldn’t become an official apprentice, Merian picked up painting techniques from her encouraging stepfather, and learnt engraving from her elder half-brothers.

Merian combined her two passions for art and nature, collecting insects for her stepfather to paint and drawing flowers... her medium was watercolours, seen as a suitably feminine artistic pursuit at the time

Early on, Merian combined her two passions for art and nature, collecting insects for her stepfather to paint and drawing flowers “decorated with caterpillars and summer birds [butterflies]... like the landscape painters do”. Her medium was watercolours, seen as a suitably feminine artistic pursuit at the time.

Aged 18, Merian married Johann Andreas Graff, an apprentice of her stepfather. Whether she married out of love, obligation or in search of further freedoms, she clearly intended to continue working despite her change in marital status.

Financial success as a nature painter

In 1668, the couple – now with a young daughter in tow – moved to Nuremberg. Here, Merian took on a number of female art students and created decorative prints of marigolds, irises and hyacinths for them to copy. These delicate designs proved so popular that she compiled them in what would become her first publication: Blumenbuch.

Sold in bundles, Merian’s flower prints were a financial success, and her reputation as a nature painter grew. In 1675, a survey of German artists by art historian Joachim von Sandrart noted that she was known for “all kinds of decorations composed of flowers, fruit and birds, in particular also the excrement of worms, flies, gnats, spiders... works like these seemed to emerge from her hands daily”.

Her floral prints were profitable, but Merian had her sights set on a more scientifically ambitious project. In 1679, a year after the birth of her second daughter, she published Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Metamorphosis and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers. Intended to benefit “explorers of nature, art painters and lovers of gardens”, this volume represented a novel way of illustrating nature, showing Merian’s beloved insects as just one part of a rich, interconnected ecosystem.

Bordered with silkworms perched on mulberry branches, the frontispiece proudly declared how the behaviours and development of “caterpillars, worms, summer birds, moths, flies and other such creatures” inside were “diligently studied, briefly described from nature, painted, engraved in copper and published by Maria Sibylla Graff herself.”

While Merian’s artistic career was going from strength to strength, her marriage had begun to founder. By 1685, Graff had left his wife and daughters with Merian’s mother in Frankfurt and travelled back to Nuremberg alone. The separation would prove permanent. For Merian that meant forgoing the security that had come with marriage and embracing a different kind of life entirely.

In 1685, the Merian women travelled north to the isolated Waltha Castle in the Netherlands. This was home to her half-brother Caspar and the Labadists, the religious sect he belonged to. It was an austere existence, with members expected to renounce all luxury for a life of communal work and religious devotion. Nevertheless, Merian made the most of the absence of distractions to continue her investigations.

In her mind, scientific enquiry was not at odds with religious devotion. Instead, she was 'full of praise at God’s mysterious power and the wonderful attention he pays to such insignificant little creatures'

She copied out two decades’ worth of notebooks, documented parasites and dissected frogs. In her mind, scientific enquiry was not at odds with religious devotion. Instead, she was “full of praise at God’s mysterious power and the wonderful attention he pays to such insignificant little creatures,” and saw recording their beauty as a way to honour Him, “glorifying him as the creator of even the smallest and humblest of these worms”.

The restrained yet peaceful life Merian enjoyed there came under threat when her estranged husband suddenly appeared at the castle gates. She was able to reject Graff’s pleas for a reunion – thanks to the Labadists who declared their marriage void – and this may well have been the last time the pair ever saw one another.

Over the years that followed, the Labadist way of life began to fall apart, as the community became plagued by infighting and disease. In 1691, Merian decided to leave her life of quiet contemplation behind. She chose a new home that could hardly have been more different: Amsterdam.

Taking the plunge

The bustling city seemed an ideal base for a curious mind such as hers, and Merian soon found herself at the heart of a global hub for art, science and commerce. Thinkers debated the latest ideas in coffee shops, while merchants bartered over exotic goods shipped from all over the world.

The city had more relaxed laws surrounding women’s work, and Merian was able to court wealthy patrons; in an effort to shake off her past, she began signing letters with her maiden name.

Yet, despite all the city had to offer, Merian struggled to settle. Even the dazzling specimens and natural oddities of the city’s plentiful curiosity cabinets left her cold, the “countless insects” rigidly displayed “in a manner that lacked both their place of origin and how they reproduced”.

Disproving the theory of 'spontaneous generation'

Maria Sibylla Merian had a fascination with insect metamorphosis – depicting insects in all their stages of life – and was just as interested in the pupa and chrysalis as the beautiful butterfly that emerged. It would help bring about a significant advance in the study of nature.

One popular scientific theory that Merian’s illustrations worked to disprove was ‘spontaneous generation’ – the idea that organisms could originate from non-living matter. As such, it was thought that maggots were formed from old meat and moths from old wool, while wasps, with their fierce stings, were thought to emerge from flames. Some people even believed that toads appeared from mud when water was thrown on the ground.

Although this theory dated all the way back to Aristotle, it was still under debate during Merian’s lifetime. In 1668, Italian scientist Francesco Redi came up with an experiment to disprove those who still claimed that there was something in the idea of spontaneous generation.

He took two pieces of rotting meat, covering one and leaving the other exposed. As Redi had suspected, maggots only appeared on the uncovered meat, suggesting they appeared through contact with flies, rather than being formed from the meat itself.

For Merian, who was so used to documenting animals in their natural habitat, Amsterdam’s urban environment felt stilted. It “lacked the opportunity to search specifically for that which is found in the fens and heath”, and her mind turned to more exotic adventures.

Finally, she took the plunge, putting 255 of her paintings up for sale to fund a daring voyage half way across the world.

In 1699, the 52-year-old Merian boarded a ship bound for Suriname, a Dutch colony on the coast of South America. With her she took a collection of dark-headed caterpillars and her younger daughter, Dorothea.

Merian had most likely heard about Suriname from her time in Amsterdam, and the Labadists, who had established an outpost there. Members of the religious community returned armed with dazzling specimens and tales of natural wonders. However, they also told of danger and hardship, such as blistering thunderstorms, crippling temperatures, leprosy and even pirates.

Governed by the Dutch since 1667, Suriname was dominated by sugar plantations powered by slave labour. Merian complained that Europeans there “mocked me for seeking anything other than sugar”. But for her, the country’s real riches lay elsewhere.

The natural wonders she found along with Dorothea were bountiful, from vanilla orchids and pineapples to scarlet ibis and tarantulas large enough to eat hummingbirds. The pair set up home in the small settlement of Paramaribo, where, unfamiliar with the climate and customs, they relied on the help of local Amerindian women. As well as providing domestic help, these women were knowledgeable guides to the forest, bringing Merian lantern flies and guavas and showing her which plants were medicinal and which poisonous.

The natural wonders she found in Suriname along with Dorothea were bountiful, from vanilla orchids and pineapples to scarlet ibis and tarantulas large enough to eat hummingbirds

After studying life in their garden and on plantations, the women embarked on long insect-hunting expeditions into the rainforest. In spring 1700, they left the security of town and travelled several days upriver, past basking caiman and maroon communities, to the old Labadist outpost of La Providence, on the hunt for new species.

Merian documented her adventures as she “wandered far out into the wilderness,” uncovering insects whose exotic beauty “cannot possibly be rendered with the paintbrush”. This was a land where butterflies looked “like polished silver overlaid with the loveliest ultramarine, green and purple” and mammoth white witch moths flapped through the tropical jungles on 11-inch wingspans.

Ultimately, even the extraordinary natural discoveries weren’t enough to sustain Merian in Suriname’s inhospitable climate. “The heat in this country is staggering, so that one can do no work at all without great difficulty,” she wrote. “I myself nearly paid for it with my death.”

Artistic and scientific pioneer

After 21 months, plagued by what may have been malaria or yellow fever, Merian was forced to return to Europe. In June 1701, she and Dorothea boarded the Dutch ship De Vreede, armed with multiple specimens preserved in brandy or “dried and well displayed in boxes where they can be seen by all”.

Despite being cut short, the trip to Suriname led to what was perhaps Merian’s most spectacular work. In 1705, she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), a volume of 60 lavish illustrations depicting 90 insect metamorphoses and 53 plant species. Insects in all their forms appeared alongside frogs, toads, lizards, snakes and spiders, some of which had never been documented by a European before.

The marvels of South America were brought to life for readers back home, with scenes including a spectacled caiman gorging on a false coral snake and a common Surinamese toad carrying eggs on its back.

Like mother, like daughters: how Johanna and Dorothea embraced the natural world

In an era when male family members would pass trades down from generation to generation, Maria Sibylla Merian’s daughters, Johanna and Dorothea, both followed in their mother’s footsteps and became nature painters. The sisters collaborated with their mother on her various projects and are even thought to have contributed paintings under her name.

Johanna went on to work as a botanical artist, and in 1711 – a decade after her mother and sister’s adventure – she moved with her husband to Suriname, where she lived until her death, sometime after 1723.

Dorothea, meanwhile, collaborated with her mother on a work on European caterpillars. After being married and widowed by her early thirties, Dorothea began using her mother’s maiden name, probably because of its reputation in the art world.

In 1715, she married Swiss painter Georg Gsell and the couple moved to St Petersburg, where Dorothea taught nature drawing. She and Gsell worked together to transform Peter the Great’s art collection into one of Europe’s first art museums, the Kunstkamera. Using her prerogative as a curator, Dorothea made sure that the collection included works both by herself, and her mother.

The volume was not only a monumental artistic achievement, it had a clear scientific message – that the marvellous insects Merian depicted did not appear from nowhere, but metamorphosed from other forms.

The Suriname volume was the culmination of a career of determined investigation into the natural world. By the time she died in 1717, shortly before she turned 70, Merian had produced a vast and spectacular body of work. In boldly seeking out creatures in their far-flung natural habitats, she had revealed that the real beauty of fauna lay in seeing them as part of a bigger, interconnected web of life.

In doing so, she pioneered a new way of depicting nature that would influence both artists and scientists for generations to come.

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This article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Ellie CawthornePodcast editor, HistoryExtra

Ellie Cawthorne is HistoryExtra’s podcast editor. She also contributes to BBC History Magazine, runs the podcast newsletter and hosts several live and virtual BBC History Magazine events.

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