In 17th century Europe, women were expected to be wives, mothers, and little else. While social and economic pressures meant that most women were unable to stray far from this domestic lifestyle, Maria Sibylla Merian was able to repeatedly break convention in ways which led her to become an influential scientific and artistic figure of her time.
In her lifetime, Merian gained admirers from among her fellow naturalists, and even from among the royal families of Europe. She is best remembered today for her pioneering work on insect metamorphosis, particularly on the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, which has cemented her reputation as an important figure in the history of science and led some to title her “the first ecologist”.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Germany on the 2nd of April 1647, as the child of the then-famous Swiss illustrator and print-maker, Matthäus Merian, and Johanna Sybilla Heyne. Though her father died when Maria was only three, her step-father, Jacob Marrel, took over his printing business and encouraged the young Maria to pursue her interest in art.
Although restricted by rules dictating what artistic media female artists were allowed to work with, Maria became skilled in the “feminine” art of watercolour painting. Her family connections in print-making allowed Maria to hone her skills and turn her passion into a career, with her first book of illustrations, the Book of Flowers printed between 1675 and 1680.
Maria’s detail-oriented artistic eye proved useful when applied to scientific observation. Her keen interest in insects, which had begun with breeding silk worms as a teenager, developed into a meticulous scientific and artistic study of insect metamorphosis (the transformations that insects undergo throughout their lifecycles). Her second published work, Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers featured detailed and richly coloured illustrations of the different stages in the lifecycles of butterflies and moths, alongside their food plants.
However, Maria was not content with observations of her local flora and fauna. Though the museums of Europe held beautiful insect specimens from abroad, these dead encased creatures left could tell her nothing of the insects’ lifecycles and ecology.
Wishing to see live insects in their natural habitats, Maria sold many of her possessions and in 1699 embarked on a scientific expedition to South America, accompanied by her daughter Dorothea. Their aim was to observe and record the wildlife of the Dutch colony of Suriname, she studied and recorded the unfamiliar creatures around her, taking notes and sketches, including documenting the local names and uses of many species.
An illustration from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705
After two years in Suriname, Maria fell ill with malaria and returned to Europe to work on what would become arguably her most important publication: The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. This book, published in 1705 to great acclaim from the scientific community, brought the vibrant colours of South American wildlife into many European libraries for the first time. As in her previous work, she placed lifecycle stage in single images, life-like compositions alongside their preferred food plants – a style which is still used in many natural history books today.
The choice of illustrating her insects this way was a bold one. At this time, many still believed that insects arose from “spontaneous generation”; that they were born out of the Earth fully formed, without any need for reproduction. Having studied her own butterflies and moths extensively, Maria knew otherwise, and decided to document her observations by placing all life stages of her insects together on one page, thus making a clear statement about where she stood on the debate. Alongside her beautiful artwork, it is this contribution to the study of metamorphosis that Maria is best known for today.
After the publication of The Metamorphosis, Maria worked little, except for trading in specimens which her daughter Johanna sent back to her from Suriname. After suffering a stroke two years previously, Maria died in 1717 at the age of 70. Her fame and influence in Europe continued to grow throughout the 18th century, but over the years her impact on art and science was largely forgotten, but this is changing. In 2013, her 366th birthday was celebrated with a Google Doodle. In 2014, the Maria Sibylla Merian Society was founded to support education and investigation into her work. In 2016, her Metamorphosis was re-published. This growing recognition for Maria and her work gives hope that in a few years’ time, Maria Sibylla Merian could be a household name.
An engraving of Maria by Jacobus Houbraken (1717)