AS A PIONEERING artist of science, she was a revolution and a revelation.
Maria Sibylla Merian was drawn to insects from a young age, and soon they, in turn, were drawn by her. Metamorphosing from childhood surveyor of the silk worm, Merian emerged as a barrier-breaking woman in full, a budding 17th-century illustrator of flora and fauna who rendered not only art, but also newfound knowledge.
“In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects,” the naturalist wrote in the foreword to her book “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam).” “At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realised that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silk worms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.”
Daughter to a noted copperplate engraver/publisher (Matthaus Merian), stepdaughter to a still-life botanical painter (Jacob Marell), Merian was to the medium born and bred. She followed her fascination with science at a time when few women could enter the profession, and pursued her passion for scientific illustration at a time when so relatively little about pupating insects was known or documented.
By tirelessly studying and drawing the chrysalis, she furthered and crystallized our understanding of bugs and bushes, leaf and larvae. And the more she traveled to new terrains, seeking out each new species across an ocean, the more of a pioneer she became in her field.
At 28, Merian published her first book of natural illustration (”Neues Blumenbuch”), and soon after came her caterpillar book; the daughter of an engraver illuminated metamorphosis through her richly tinted copperplate prints.
In 1699, the divorced Merian (with daughter Dorothea) traveled to the Dutch colony of Suriname to study all manner of South American species, drawing her findings for two years -- sometimes gained through perilous journeys -- before malaria forced her home. The result, in 1705, was the book (”Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium”) upon which so much of her fame and reputation rests.
“Using her keen observational skills, Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized both botany and zoology,” writes the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).
“She was truly an extraordinary artist and naturalist,” says Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library Rare Book Collection, which in 2012 participated in NMWA’s collaborative citywide exhibit of great women artists by featuring Merian’s work, influences and legacy.
Today, Google celebrates the great naturalist and artist with a home-page Doodle to mark the 366th anniversary of her Frankfurt birth. (Observe closely enough and you will see “Google” spelled out amid the scene’s twisting greenery.)
Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717. Her brilliant, and brilliantly tinted, contributions to science and art — a centuries-long “butterfly effect” — remain forever in full flower.