Maria Sibylla Merian

MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN

DISSERTATIO DE GENERATIONE ET METAMORPHOSIBUS INSECTORUM SURINAMENSIUM, 1726

METAMORPHOSIS

Maria Sibylla Merian’s most famous work is presented here in a bilingual edition. The French title is: “Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam”. It appeared for the first time in 1705 in folio format with 60 excellently worked copper engravings. This edition has been embellished by adding ten panels from Merian’s estate and two pictures from a natural history cabinet. The copper plates are elaborate, and partly coloured with luxurious gold and silver coatings.

In the introduction, Merian declares her authorship, but also mentions the authors whose works she draws on in her treatise. She adopted some of the plant names from the local inhabitants, and later she assigned the Latin names with the help of Caspar Commelin, head of the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam.

Most of the copper engravings follow Merian’s characteristic layout, showing the host plant in the centre, surrounded by the insect in its various stages of development as egg, larva or caterpillar, chrysalis and winged adult. Besides insects, Merian also portrays other animals such as lizards and frogs that live in the environment of the plant depicted.

INFLUENTIAL RESEARCH

Merian’s work on the origins and development of insects in Suriname aroused great interest even before its publication. Its special attraction lies in the adventurous and daring expedition of this confident and independent woman, as well as the methodical observation, description and careful depiction of tropical insects, animals and plants.

The copper engravings are based on drawings and sketches made by Merian and her daughter Dorothea Maria in the tropical land of Suriname. As a Latin work, it receives recognition in the scholarly world. Carl von Linné, in his plant taxonomy, refers to first descriptions by Maria Sibylla Merian. After Merian’s death in 1717, several reprints appeared using the original copper plates.

ARTIST AND SCIENTIST

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt am Main, daughter to the painter and copperplate engraver Matthäus Merian the Elder. She loses her father at the age of three. Her talents are, however, encouraged by her stepfather, the flower painter Jacob Marrel. From her childhood she collects caterpillars, breeding them and documenting their mode of life.

After marrying the painter and publisher Johann Andreas Graff, Merian and her family move to Nuremberg, where she founds an art school for young women, trades in painting utensils and publishes the first works through her husband’s publisher. In the meantime, she becomes the mother of two girls, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. In 1685, she separates from her husband. Along with her mother and her two daughters, she joins the pietistic community of the Labadists at Waltha Castle in Friesland. Here she encounters insect collections from Suriname, a Dutch colony in northern South America, and learns Latin.

In 1691, Merian and her daughters move to Amsterdam. Together with her younger daughter, she boldly goes on an expedition to Suriname at the age of 52, to observe butterflies there in their natural habitat. After a stay of two years, she returns to Amsterdam very ill, but with numerous sketches, drawings and specimens. After her recovery, Merian organises an exhibition and becomes known throughout Europe. She publishes her findings in 1705 in a folio “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium”, which attracts a great deal of interest.

Supported by her younger daughter, Merian again turns to the study of European insects. In the last three years of her life Merian is left paralysed, but with the help of her younger daughter she completes the third volume of the caterpillar book and prepares the complete edition. As her life work, this is published in Dutch and Latin after her death.

THE COLONY OF SURINAME

After Columbus and his crew landed on the coast of Suriname in 1498, England and the Netherlands fought for supremacy in the northern regions of South America. In the early 17th century it was the English who ruled the area. They cleared the forests and cultivated sugar cane. For this work they brought thousands of African slaves to Suriname. The Dutch then acquired Suriname in exchange for New Amsterdam (now New York), and they cultivated coffee, tobacco, cocoa and indigofera plants here as well as sugar. They continued the practice of keeping slaves until the late 19th century.

Usually one finds that descriptions from the colonies suggest an overbearing sense of superiority, based on the belief that Europeans were the norm and the colonised cultures were inferior forms of life. This is where we find that Maria Sibylla Merian held quite a different attitude. She describes the beauty of nature and the daily life of Suriname’s inhabitants with admiration and empathy, while expressing criticism of the way the slaves were treated.

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