Maria Sibylla Merian - Caterpillars

MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN

THE WONDERFUL METAMORPHOSIS AND PECULIAR FLOWER FOOD OF CATERPILLARS, 1679

THE AUTHOR IS PRESENT

“The wonderful metamorphosis and peculiar flower food of caterpillars” is Maria Sibylla Merian’s first scientific work. It is published in 1679 in a small edition and on plain paper through the publisher run by her husband Johann Andreas Graff. Only very few copies have survived to this day.

The work comprises 102 pages with fifty etchings, which Merian numbers, describes and names after the plants that are illustrated. The present copy was coloured by Merian herself. With precise brushstrokes she captures the finest hues from the whole range of colours available to her at the time.

The texts and images are based on observations which Merian had recorded in her journals since early childhood. The objects of her research are plants and insects from the surroundings of Frankfurt and Nuremberg. The texts describe the mode of life of the caterpillars and their metamorphosis. The images also illustrate the developmental stages of the insects around the host plant. In no other work is Maria Sibylla Merian so intensely present as a scientist and artist, as every step of her work – from the first notes to the book coloured in her own hand – bears her very personal touch.

UNCONVENTIONAL VIEWS

While other natural scientists of the time emphasise the systematic classification of individual species according to morphological criteria, and for this purpose dissect animals into their component parts, Maria Sibylla Merian observes the living insects. With this approach, she identifies contexts and characteristic behaviour such as diurnal or nocturnal activity, reproduction and development, specific nutrition and infestation by parasites. She also constantly adds to her earlier records in text and images.

She notes her observations in the first person, states the dates and times as precisely as possible, and records the detailed appearance, locomotion and other distinctive features of the insects. Although these descriptions are presented in a very personal style, they meet the criteria of scientific records by providing exact information.

At the centre of each of the images the host plant is shown. This forms the principal source of food for the respective caterpillar, serves as shelter for the pupa during metamorphosis, and later as the place of departure on the first flight, and as the place where the eggs of the winged insect are deposited. Thus Merian groups the animals around the central plant, while depicting them as true to scale as possible. Merian first presents this type of scientific illustration in the caterpillar book, and she retains it later on.

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.

WORKING IN MISOGYNOUS TIMES

Maria Sibylla Merian lives in a time when women are still being persecuted and executed as witches. Women are considered inferior in everyday life, in religion, law and science. They cannot pursue any official vocational training – except as a midwife – and certainly not study at a university. Nevertheless, Merian manages to lead an extraordinary life in every respect, as an independent woman, artist and scientist.

Thanks to her family's support she is able to learn arts and crafts. She skilfully avoids the restrictions of the craft associations, runs her own art school, maintains her family and develops a new technique of illustration. Because the universities were closed to women, Merian acquires the scientific background for her insect research through self-study. She investigates early microscopy and reads the works of entomologists available at the time. She succeeds in establishing her network in the European scholarly world. With her original descriptions and observations of life processes, she gives a new and lasting stimulus to entomology. A number of plants and insects are later named after her.

Merian also dares to take unconventional paths in her private life. She divorces, leaves her home country, takes care of the family herself and goes on a dangerous expedition for two years without a male companion. This independence finds a continuation in her daughters, both of whom work as artists.

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