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© January 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717)

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the daughter of a Dutch mother and a Swiss father — the engraver Matthäus Merian the Elder, whose publishing business (inherited from his first wife) specialized in city views and landscapes. When Merian the Elder died in 1650, he left the publishing business to Maria’s mother, who married the Flemish flower painter, Jacob Marell, a year later. After moving to Nuremberg (birthplace and home of Dürer) in 1670, the adult Maria would return briefly to Frankfurt before moving to Holland with her two daughters (Johanna Helena, born in 1668, and Dorothea Maria, born in 1678) and widowed mother: first to West Friesland in 1685, and then to Amsterdam in 1691. In Amsterdam, Merian became acquainted with Caspar Commelin, director of the Botanical Garden, and with owners of scientific collections such as Frederick Ruysch, whose daughter Rachel she would have met as well. Of note, Merian became a Labadist in later life (a Dutch evangelical sect which also attracted the very learned Anna Maria van Schurman, and the man-midwife Hendrik van Deventer, whose religiously-inspired practice of the art would transform European obstetrics). Merian’s most important illustrated books include Florum Fasciculi tres, first series, 1675; Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung, first edition, 1679–83; and Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, first edition, 1705.

Merian claimed an avid interest in insects from childhood, and her cataloging of indigenous insect, plant, and animal life in the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America (Dutch Guiana) was highly acclaimed. Aided by her two daughters (Johanna Helena was already living in Surinam as the wife of a Dutch merchant, and Dorothea Maria travelled with her mother from Holland), Merian worked in Surinam for two years, residing there as the guest of a Labadist plantation, with her scientific research funded by the city of Amsterdam.

Ill health forced Merian to return to Amsterdam in the summer of 1701, along with the records of her research to date: illustrations on large sheets of parchment, comprehensive notes, preserved butterflies, and flower bulbs. Merian’s scrupulous study of the exotic flora and fauna of Surinam, with its 60 large plates, engraved by three Dutch artists after her own watercolor studies, was finally issued in 1705 under the title Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, and advertised prior to publication in volume 23 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Clearly, there were many potential subscribers for Merian’s superb book on the exotica of Surinam among the journal’s established international audience. The price to English subscribers was 30 shillings; Dutch subscribers were charged 15 guilders, plus an additional 30 guilders for copies hand-colored by Merian herself.

Ornament from Capt. John Smith's early 17th-century publications on Virginia


further discussion of Maria Sibylla Merian and her style of scientific research & communication in the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy — I

* * *
a brief discussion of the still life painter, Rachel Ruysch, plus a digital reproduction of her father’s macabre art of waxworks (based on his invention of a method for injecting the fine vessels in cadavers with tinted wax for display purposes) in the GALLERY exhibit, Portraits of Melancholy — I

BELOW: Advertisement, published 1703, for Maria Sibylla Merian’s forthcoming book of ethnobotany, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.

The advertisement was published in vol. 23 of the scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

The text of the 1703 advertisement reads:

That Curious Person Madam Maria Sybilla Merian, who hath already published two Vollums in Quarto, concerning such Insects and their several changes, which she had observed in Germany and Holland with their lively Figures; being lately returned from Surinam in the West Indies, doth now propose to publish a Curious History of all those Insects, and their transmutations that she hath there observed, which are many and very rare, with their Description and Figures in large Folio on Imperial Paper, containing 60 Tables, curiously performed from her own Designs and Paintings. These she proposes at thirty shillings a Vollume, viz. ten shillings in hand, and ten more at the receipt of one Moity or 30 Tables, and the rest to be delivered on the third payment.

Such Persons as are willing to Subscribe for a work of this Nature, (which for its Curiosity and Performance very well deserves publick Encouragement) She desires the first Payment may be speedily made to James Petiver Apothecary in Aldersgate street, London, to whom she hath sent several Tables, and some in Colours, to shew their Curiosity, and how admirably they are engraved, which may be seen by any that desire it. The Work is in great forwardness, and highly approved of by all that see it.

Ornament from Capt. John Smith's early 17th-century publications on Virginia

BELOW: Anonymous Dutch portrait engraving of Maria Sibylla Merian (from the early 18th century).

Shows Merian with some of the exotic specimens brought home with her from Surinam, and displayed at the Stadthaus in Amsterdam.

Londa Schiebinger describes Merian’s trip to Surinam as

a great success for both her science and her business. Merian brought with her from Surinam exotic specimens that the mayor put on display at the town hall. Among her brandy-preserved treasures were a crocodile (called by Réaumur a “fierce insect”) any types of snakes, and other animals — including twenty jars of butterflies, bugs, fireflies, and iguanas. Several of these specimens she sold for three florins each. She also sold one crocodile, two large and eighteen small snakes, turtles, and “other insects” for twenty florins. Her illustrations fetched a higher price, selling for as much as forty-five florins each. Through these and other sales Merian hoped to recoup the price of her passage.

(Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? 75–6)

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