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Maria Sibylla Merian
German, 1647-1717

Maria Sibylla Merian’s scientific observations revolutionized botany and zoology, revealing the mystery of metamorphosis, from egg through larva and pupa, to adult insect. At the same time, the surpassing beauty and vigor of her art can be appreciated on its own merits. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, was a Swiss naturalist, printmaker, and publisher. Her stepfather was the Flemish flower painter Jacob Marell, and from early childhood Merian showed interest and aptitude in drawing animals and plants. She published her Blumenbuch in the 1670s. It consisted of graphic models meant to be reproduced in drawings or embroidery, since women were legally not permitted to work as painters. At the same time she began drawing from living insects she had collected and raised, rather than from preserved specimens, as was customary at that time.

In 1685, Merian left Nuremberg and her husband, from whom she was later divorced, and moved with her two daughters and widowed mother to the Dutch province of West Friesland. After her mother's death Merian, at the age of 52, set out for the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. It was unheard of for a lone woman to undertake such a long and dangerous journey. Merian spent two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna until forced to return to Amsterdam after contracting malaria. There, in 1705, she published the lavishly illustrated folio, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam), the book which established her international reputation. The two plates shown are from the second, posthumously published, edition.

Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium -- Papaver spinosum, by Maria Sybilla Merian

Plate XXIV, Papaver spinosum, now known as Carduus spinosus, Plumeless thistle, with insects in various stages of metamorphosis

Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium -- Crocodile with a coral snake, by Maria Sybilla Merian

Plate LXIX, Crocodile with a coral snake

Hand-colored copperplate engravings

Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium, by Maria Sybilla Merian
Hagæ Comitum, apud Petrum Gosse, 1726.
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Princeton University Library, Graphic Arts Collection
Rebecca W. Davidson, Curator of Graphic Arts
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Last Modified: February 13, 2004