illustration butterflies Maria Sibylla Merian

An eventful life

 

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647, the daughter of Matthaeus Merian and Johanna Sibylla Heim. Her father had taken over the publishing house from Johann Theodor de Bry, the father of his first wife, in 1623. Matthaeus Merian was a famous engraver. His sons, Matthaeus junior and Caspar, inherited their father’s talent and they made a name for themselves as, an engraver and an illuminator (‘afzetter’)1. Although Maria Sibylla never knew her father – he died when she was three years old – she turned out to be gifted as well. Her mother’s second husband was painter Jacob Marrel. Maria Sibylla Merian was taught by him, most likely in watercolour techniques, since women were not allowed to sell paintings in oils in many German cities, so it seemed wiser for them to become skilled at aquarelle and gouache.2 In 1665, Maria Sibylla Merian married Johann Andreas Graff. Their daughter, Johanna Helena, was born in 1668. In that same year, the couple moved to Nurnberg, where Graff was born. There Maria Sibylla painted watercolours, mostly of flowers. On the plants she found caterpillars, which she allowed to pupate and emerge as butterflies, with varying degrees of success. Merian’s fascination – as a deeply religious woman – for caterpillars and butterflies can be explained in part by metamorphosis as a metaphor: the caterpillar resembles man on earth, the pupa represents its apparent death, and the butterfly is the soul that returns to God. But religion was certainly not her only motivation. She was a great observer. She described what she saw and was able to capture her observations in increasingly beautiful compositions. Her aquarelles were collected in the three-volume Neues Blumenbuch, the first volume of which was published by her husband in 1675. Already at this stage, there were insects on many of the flowers, but four years later she published a book on the subject that would become her life’s work: Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung. The subtitle stated that insects had been researched and described using ‘eine gantz-neue Erfindung’. She was the first to portray caterpillars and butterflies with the plants that nourished them, and with her empirical research method she was able to confirm what Francesco Redi had concluded in 1668: insects are born from eggs and do not emerge as a result of spontaneous generation, as had been widely assumed up to that point.3 After her stepfather’s death in 1681, Maria Sibylla and her family (her second daughter Dorothea Maria had been born in 1678) returned to Frankfurt to support her mother. There she published the second volume on caterpillars, but in 1685 she decided to join the Labadists, together with her mother and daughters.

The Labadists

 

Merian was a very religious woman. That much is clear from her publications during this time4. The religious community she joined was named after Jean de Labadie, a former Jesuit. The essence of his ideology was an attempt to live like the first Christians: devout, sober and communal, with all income shared. De Labadie had to leave Amsterdam, because the clergymen of the Reformed Church found his ideology to be incompatible with the prevailing religion. One reason for the break was the fact that a marriage was considered invalid as soon as a married woman joined the community. After having stayed in Altona in Denmark, in 1675 the Labadists settled in Wieuwerd (in the Dutch province of Friesland) on the Walta estate of Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijk. Maria Sibylla knocked on the door and was admitted. Her half-brother Caspar was already living there. Her husband Johann Andreas Graff had travelled with his wife, children and stepmother in law, but was not allowed in. The Labadists declared Graff and Merian’s marriage invalid.5 The divorce was made official in 1692. After the death of her half-brother (in 1686) and her mother (in 1690), and the outbreak of an epidemic that claimed numerous lives in Wieuwerd, Maria Sibylla moved with her daughters to Amsterdam. It was there, in the Vijzelstraat, that she started her first atelier. A number of aquarelles, by either Merian or one of her daughters, still remain from that period. Johanna Helena had become a very skilled aquarellist and Dorothea Maria later followed her example. Merian became famous. She got to know prominent residents of Amsterdam, men who were studying nature and collecting curiosities, including Nicolaes and Jonas Witsen, Frederik Ruysch and later Albertus Seba.

Suriname

 

The sisters of Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijk had a plantation in Suriname, where the Labadists lived and worked. During her stay in Friesland, Merian had seen animals that had been brought from that plantation to Wieuwerd. In Amsterdam she visited a number of Cabinets of curiosities with special butterflies and other animals, which had been transported to the Dutch Republic by the crews of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company. Driven by her desire to study these creatures alive, she left for Suriname with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria in June 1699. Most of her research was carried out on one of the plantations belonging to Van Vredenburg, at the Carameca stream, a tributary of the Commewijne River. In April 1700, she worked on the plantation of the Labadists, further up the Suriname River. She fell ill and in June 1701 mother and daughter returned to Amsterdam, with numerous coloured sketches, mounted specimens of butterflies and living caterpillars. They arrived on 23 September 1701. At some point during the years that followed, Merian moved with her daughter to the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, between the Kerkstraat and the Prinsengracht; her eldest daughter had married the Amsterdam-based merchant Jacob Hendrik Herolt in 1692. In Merian’s new home, they turned their sketches and research into a book about Surinamese insects. On 15 November 1703, when Merian had been back from Suriname for two years, she advertised in the newspaper de Oprechte Haerlemsche Courant, writing that she had finished the first third of her book on Surinamese insects, and that her work could be purchased from booksellers in the ‘most prominent’ cities. She also said that the original drawings, the printed versions and the animals themselves were on display at her home in the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. The following year, she put several more advertisements in the newspaper, to encourage people to register to purchase her book. In December 1704 she wrote that an uncoloured version was available for a mere 15 guilders, but that the price would soon rise to 18 guilders. Around this time, Merian moved into a new home in the Kerkstraat, between the Spiegelstraat and the Leidsestraat.

Surinamese insects

 

In the early months of 1705, the book was indeed published: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.6 The buyers could choose between a Latin and a Dutch version, and between a coloured and an uncoloured copy. The foreword to the book addressed the reader. Merian had paid the production costs herself. She had the text printed elsewhere, but acted as publisher. Three of the engravings were made by the Merian atelier, the others were by Joseph Mulder (21 engravings), Pieter Sluyters (35 engravings) and Daniël Stopendaal (1 engraving). In her foreword, Merian gave a lot of information about her ideas and the way the book had come about. On the text she wrote that she had limited it to her own observations, and that learned readers were free to draw their own conclusions. She did have Caspar Commelin, who worked for the Amsterdam Hortus Medicus (now Hortus Botanicus) write a scientific account of the plants she had described and portrayed. Merian received favourable reviews from England and her fame grew. Travellers who passed through Amsterdam came to visit her, such as Zaharias von Uffenbach on 23 February 1711. He saw a lot of her work and noted that he was offered an uncoloured version of the insect book for 15 guilders, or a coloured version for 45 guilders. In addition to a number of original drawings, he bought the coloured version of Raupen for 20 guilders, (uncoloured it costed 5 guilders).7 Peter the Great visited the Netherlands between 1716 and 1717 for a second time. He was looking for art and curiosities of natural history. He was accompanied by artist Georg Gsell, who knew Merian and her work quite well and would later marry her youngest daughter Dorothea Maria. As a result of his mediation, two folio editions of 254 aquarelles by Merian were taken to Saint Petersburg. Peter the Great’s personal physician, Robert Erskine, bought Merian’s study book that would become so important for science. It too is now in Saint Petersburg. Although Merian and her work were famous, only circa 60 copies of the first edition of her book on Surinamese insects (1705) have survived in public collections. There are undoubtedly a number of copies in private collections, and her loose plates will also have found a buyer. The exact number of copies printed, however, and the extent to which the book was successful are impossible to determine, since there are no records left of the Merian atelier.8 Much of what we know is based on reports by visitors or on letters, such as the correspondence between Merian and Johann Georg Volkamer in Nurnberg. It is clear from the following that the book was in high demand.

Later editions

 

Maria Sibylla Merian passed away on 13 January 1717. A year later, Gsell married her daughter Dorothea Maria and the couple left for Saint Petersburg the same year. Dorothea Maria started working for the Kunstkamera, which had only recently been built to house and show Peter the Great’s collections. Just before she left, Dorothea Maria sold her mother’s volumes, and “… the plates, plate prints and letterpress prints, illuminated and not illuminated” to the Amsterdam publisher Joannes Oosterwijk.9 He republished Insects of Suriname in 1719, with several new plates, including some based on information from Albertus Seba. Merian’s works were republished several times during the eighteenth century: in 1726 by the Haguebased publisher P. Gosse, in 1730 by the Amsterdam-based publisher J.F. Bernard and in Paris, in 1771, by L.C. Desnos, all of which shows how much in demand the book continued to be. In 2017, 300 years will have passed since the death of Maria Sibylla Merian. A number of events will be held to mark the occasion, including a scientific congress and lectures on this remarkable woman. Lannoo Publishers has decided to publish a facsimile of the copy of the first 1705 edition from the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, in collaboration with this library so that modern readers can see with their own eyes the detail and colour of her drawings and paintings of the insects and fruits. The book, edited by two curators of collections that include important natural history works, Marieke van Delft (Koninklijke Bibliotheek) and Hans Mulder (Artis Library Amsterdam), includes a number of essays that perfectly reflect aspects of Maria Sibylla Merian and the time she lived in. There is a biographic introduction by art historian Ella Reitsma. Then Kay Etheridge, biology professor at Gettysburg College, discusses the impact Merian has had on biology, and Bert van de Roemer touches upon Merian and the period she lived in. Lastly, the editors cover the production of Merian’s book on the insects of Suriname. The introduction is bilingual, and an English translation will be included of all the texts by Merian that feature in the book. The animals and plants mentioned in the new edition will be listed in an exhaustive scientific index.

1 Colouring pictures for books.

2 Gouache is similar to watercolour but coats better.

3 Generatio spontanae was the theory that insects arose spontaneously from dirt.

4 In her later publications such as the Surinamese book on insects and her book on caterpillars, God is almost completely missing, except for some obligatory references.

5 This emerges from Graff’s correspondence with lawyer Johann Jakob Schütz. In: Ella Reitsma, Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters (Zwolle, 2008), p. 84.

6 She advertised the book in the Opregte Leydse courant on 2 March 1705.

7 Ella Reitsma, Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters (Zwolle, 2008), p. 207-210.

8 Idem

9 Cited in: Ella Reitsma, Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, p. 234.

 

 

Lannoo Publishing National Library of the Netherlands
illustration butterflies Maria Sibylla Merian
illustration butterflies Maria Sibylla Merian