Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647 and raised in a family of artists. Her father Matthäus Merian the Elder was a celebrated Swiss engraver and publisher, known throughout Europe for his depictions of cities and landscapes, and his illustrated editions of Grands Voyages (accounts of journeys to the New World).
After the death of her father when she was three years old, Merian’s mother married Jacob Marrel who was a painter and engraver, as were Merian’s new half-brothers, Mathias the Younger and Caspar Merian. Maria Sibylla began drawing and painting at an early age, guided by Jacob Marrel.
Although gifted, as a woman Merian’s prospects were limited by the conventions of her day: for example, women were not permitted to study and draw the nude, or to enrol in study abroad in artists’ workshops.
In the 17th century, Frankfurt was an important market for silk, and it seems likely that this influenced Merian’s early interest in insects. Her study journal records that, by the time she was 13, she had begun nurturing, observing and drawing silkworms and other insects, and developing her special interest in metamorphosis.
At the age of 18, she married Johann Andreas Graff, an engraver and painter in the Merian workshop. The couple eventually settled and started a family in Nürnberg, where Merian gave drawing lessons to unmarried daughters of wealthy families. This gave her access to the fine gardens of the city’s elite, where she could observe plants and insects at first hand. At that time, naturalism was mostly the preserve of male amateurs.
I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silkworms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realized that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silkworms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.
Maria Sibylla Merian
In 1679 and 1683, Merian published two volumes of caterpillar studies titled Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars and their Strange Diet of Flowers). Each volume contained fifty copperplate etchings and engravings by Merian depicting the remarkable life cycle of the insects she had observed for several years, particularly larvae, butterflies and moths.
Following the death of Jacob Marrel, Merian and her husband returned to Frankfurt. In that city, amid family arguments about inheritance and marital troubles, Merian left the Lutheran faith - and her husband - to join a community of Labadists, with her mother and two daughters, at Waltha Castle in Friesland.
On the moors of Friesland, Merian began studying the birth and development of frogs, collecting and dissecting them. Amongst the Labadist ethos of piety and detachment from worldly things, Merian continued her studies of insects for about five years. After her mother died in 1690, Merian and her daughter left the community’s strictures for Amsterdam, where there was far greater prosperity and opportunity for a woman to make her mark. A short time later, Merian and her husband divorced.
In cosmopolitan Amsterdam, Merian and her daughters were welcomed into a circle of naturalists, engravers and collectors. Merian was employed to paint watercolours in Amsterdam’s Botanical Gardens.
The still-life painter Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), became Merian’s pupil and went on to a long and successful career. Like Merian, Ruysch was famed for her scientific accuracy and her meticulous attention to detail.
In 1699, the City of Amsterdam invited Merian to travel to the Dutch plantation colony of Surinam in South America. The colony relied on slave labour, mostly supplied by the Dutch West India Company from its West African trading posts, to produce sugar, cotton, and indigo crops for export.
Although Merian had studied exotic insect specimens in the wunderkammers of Amsterdam collectors, the opportunity to research and study insects herself in Surinam was irresistible.
In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at… expensive collection[s]. I had found innumerable other insects, but found that their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.
Maria Sibylla Merian
The voyage was only partially funded by the Dutch West India Company so Merian had to sell many precious possessions to make up the shortfall. As has been remarked by Natalie Zemon Davis, not only was this voyage unusual for a woman in her position, it was unprecedented for any European naturalist to venture this kind of independently financed and organised expedition.
Merian and her younger daughter Dorothea settled in Paramaribo. In her own garden, in nearby forests and on plantations along the Surinam river, Merian collected, bred and researched a variety of native insect species. She also documented the local names and uses of plants. Merian later criticised the attitudes of the colonial merchants, saying that "[they] have no desire to investigate anything… indeed they mocked me for seeking anything other than sugar in the country." After contracting malaria in 1701, Merian and her daughter were forced to return to the Netherlands.
Four years later, Merian’s Surinam studies culminated in the publication of Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam). Its sixty illustrations focused on the processes and transformation of insect life (as had Merian’s previous publications). The book was published in Amsterdam as a folio edition, in Dutch and in Latin. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Merian gave credit to her Surinamese servants for their efforts.
Before 1700, few colour images of the New World has been printed. The accuracy and detail of Merian's illustrations in Metamorphosis were a significant contribution to the field of entomology.
All the caterpillars and butterflies in Metamorphosis are depicted on their food plant. The butterflies are drawn at actual size and each plate is accompanied by a scientific description. Metamorphosis established her as a renowned figure in her field.
In 1715, Merian suffered a stroke and was left partially paralysed. She continued her work in Amsterdam until her death on 13 January 1717. Her daughter Dorothea posthumously published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother's work.