In the late 17th-century, two society ladies in Nuremburg visited a local garden. Dressed in their Sunday best, they pounced upon a caterpillar and happily carried it home like a treasure. This incident was later recounted with amusement by one of those nicely dressed ladies. It was a glimpse into an unusual life.
In a world of natural history generalists, Maria Sibylla Merian (also known as Maria Sybilla Merian) was a specialist, concentrating almost her entire life on how moths and butterflies metamorphosed from caterpillars. In her early 50s, she followed her passion halfway around the world and risked death from disease to study these bugs in their natural habitat.
Born into a family of Frankfurt printers in 1647, Merian lived when disease and untimely death created clans rivaling today's blended families. Her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder, worked for the son and married the daughter of publisher Theodor de Bry, inheriting the publishing house when his brother-in-law died. Matthaus fathered sons with his first wife, and after she died, he married Johanna Sibylla Heim, who gave birth to Maria. So Maria had adult half-brothers when she was still tiny.
Merian the Elder, so the story goes, foresaw that it would be the little girl who would make the family name famous. If he actually made that prediction, he was a man ahead of his time; few women in Maria's day had many chances to bring their families fame. But throughout her life, the daughter remembered her printing-house roots. Her father's publishing logo was a stork holding an evil-symbolizing snake in its beak with the motto that piety pays; Maria Sibylla Merian later wore a stork signet ring that she used to seal the wax on her letters.
When Maria was just three, Matthaus died, and a year later, Johanna married painter Jacob Marrel, who brought children from his previous marriage. The quick remarriages were typical for the time, as was the practice of engaging children in the family business; for middle-class businesses to thrive, everyone had to work. Maria Sibylla Merian was allowed to spend time in the bustling studio, watching the artists and apprentices, sometimes helping out by cleaning brushes and mixing paints. Marrel carried on the artistic training of his bright young stepdaughter, teaching her skills that would serve her well for the rest of her life. Guild rules for landscape painters at the time forbade women and girls to paint in oils, but she could still use watercolors.
Marrel and Maria's mother had two children together, but both babies died, and once his own children were grown, Marrel left. He continued to support Johanna somewhat, but Maria and her mother were essentially on their own. Maria was only 12.
Women owning businesses raised eyebrows in 17th-century Europe, though the practice wasn't unheard of. Maria had probably helped her stepfather and half-brothers with the family business and, only a teenager, she helped keep her mother afloat after Marrel's departure. A year after her stepfather left, she started studying insects. She captured them, raised them, and drew them at their various life stages, often by candlelight. She claimed that she "withdrew from society and devoted myself to these investigations." At the age of 13, Maria had already witnessed silkworm metamorphosis, nearly a decade before anyone published a description of the process.
While still in her teens, Maria married a former student of her stepfather's, Johann Andreas Graff. Graff was nearly 30. Few details are known about their union, except that it eventually soured — and produced only two children when most marriages of similar duration produced about 10. When the Graffs' first daughter was still a baby, they moved to his hometown of Nuremberg, and there, Maria began publishing. At first, she focused on pretty flowers, the first volume of her Book of Flowers coming out in 1675. But eventually bugs took over the pictures. Over the course of her life, she would document the ontogeny of roughly 200 bug species.
How a caterpillar changes into a butterfly was poorly understood in the late 17th century. The remarkable changes by themselves were hard enough to grasp; parasites such as wasps and sawflies laying their eggs inside other animals so their own young would emerge confounded naturalists even further. Merian often identified the interlopers and labeled the process "false metamorphosis." In 1679, she published the first volume of her book on insect life through her husband's press. She published the second volume in 1683. The full title ran to a paragraph, but the book was generally known as Raupen, the German word for caterpillar. In the first volume, she described herself as a wife working with her husband's permission. Things would change.
After 14 years, the Graff family returned to Frankfurt. Not long afterwards, Graff traveled back to Nuremburg alone. Then Maria moved her two daughters (Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria), her aging mother and herself to the Netherlands to join a strict religious sect: the Labadists. Founded by a Jesuit-turned-ultra-Protestant, the group aimed for a primitive version of Christianity.
Graff followed his family to the religious outpost and pleaded with his wife to return, but she refused. He eventually gave up and left, but he didn't exactly leave his family in paradise. In the Labadist community, privation ruled: plain clothes, simple food (and not much of it), few fires to ward off the cold. Personal property became community property. Even the simple act of enjoying one's assigned tasks was considered a form of vanity. And the community members were encouraged to keep each other from falling into sin. In other words: a big bunch of skinny, shivering hall monitors. Maria's religious fervor apparently cooled. Not long after her mother died, and shortly before the Labadist community collapsed from too few new recruits bringing much money with them, she left for Amsterdam.
After years with the Labadists, Maria — who reverted to her maiden name of Merian — found herself in a city 500 times as big as the religious community she had left, and this time, she couldn't rely on her husband or her family for connections. Yet as a woman, she probably couldn't have found a better place to settle. Seventeenth-century women had to negotiate a tricky maze to avoid trouble. Witch fever was raging in Salem, and had only recently abated in her native Germany. Merian's own biological father had engraved and printed Sorcery, a dense illustration of witching rituals, decades earlier. Insects still carried a whiff of corruption, and a woman who wanted to study them was suspect. But Amsterdam hadn't burned a witch in a century. Even better, women could own businesses, keep their own property, and train as apprentices. In fact, another woman, Agnes Block, was one of Merian's benefactors, hiring her to paint exotic plants and butterflies.
Amsterdam was headquarters for the Dutch East India Company, so the city held collections from Dutch colonies worldwide. In this new metropolis, Merian could mingle with other women artists, even explore the curiosity cabinets of Frederik Ruysch. She trained Ruysch's daughter Rachel, who went on to become a still life painter. Merian and her daughters established a studio and painted birds, bugs and flowers. After several years, she was well-connected and well off. And restless.
She was successful in Amsterdam, but the success came at a price. Merian was so busy earning a living that she had virtually no time to follow bugs. Her chance to resume her studies came from an unexpected corner. Though she had left the Labadist settlement at Wiewert (it had, in fact, disbanded), she stayed in touch with some of her old acquaintances, and it turned out that Labadists still operated a plantation in far-off South America, in Surinam. Merian sold more than 200 of her paintings to raise money, received a grant from the city, wrote out her will (just in case), collected her younger daughter, and boarded a ship. It was 1699, and Merian was 52.
The journey to Surinam was grueling, with cramped conditions, little privacy, no fresh food, and roiling seas. Merian and Dorothea endured two months of rough travel before feeling firm ground under their feet.
In the Surinam jungle, Merian hoped to understand metamorphosis in as many species as possible. She did find new species she had never encountered before, but the jungle brought difficulties hadn't foreseen. Up to this point, she had done much of her collecting in gardens designed for human enjoyment, with flowers and the bugs that ate them conveniently placed below eye level. South American jungles didn't accommodate humans so nicely. Trees shot skyward as much as 150 feet, with different kinds of animals living in different layers, and most of the action above the canopy. In one instance, she recounted having a tall, hollow tree that couldn't be safely climbed chopped down in order to collect its leggy booty. Locals often helped her out, but when they brought her a bug, she didn't necessarily know what to feed it or how to keep it alive.
Surinam was in the territory of the Dutch West India Company, and unlike the spice-rich Dutch East India Company, the western branch made its money from the slave trade. When Merian lived in Surinam, African slaves outnumbered Europeans a dozen to one. Many of the locals who helped Merian were slaves, either Indigenous or African. No abolitionist, she had slaves of her own, and she later recounted candidly how she used them to do the toughest jobs, such as hacking away "thistles and thorns" to make a more comfortable path for her. That said, she at least acknowledged their contributions (though without listing their names) and she was often horrified at how badly slaves were treated. At one point, Merian described the slaves' use of a local plant:
The seeds of this plant (called the "peacock flower") are used by women who have labor pains in order to hasten the birth. The Indians (who are not well-treated by the Dutch) use the seeds so they will not produce children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be treated well. Otherwise they refuse to have children. In fact, they commit suicide because they are treated so badly. They believe that they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.
After cutting their teeth policing each other in Wiewert, many Labadists proved to be particularly cruel slavers in Surinam.
During her stay in the country, Merian had thorny relations with the Dutch planters who, she felt, mocked her for caring about anything besides sugar. She marveled at their reluctance to cultivate anything else, such as grapes, pomegranates, passion fruit or native vanilla.
Life was tough in Surinam. The heat was ever present and often debilitating, especially for someone adhering to European dress and European bedding. (Hammocks were cooler, the locals knew.) Mosquitoes posed a constant threat. Despite the heat and hardship, the land was in many ways a naturalist's paradise. She found moths with foot-wide wingspans. A bright blue lizard laid iridescent eggs in a corner of her house, and she took the eggs with her when she returned to Europe. (Taking home specimens was a gamble in those days. When specimens were preserved in spirits, unfussy sailors would toss out the specimens and drink the leftover brandy.)
Merian had hoped to stay about five years, but tropical fever, perhaps yellow fever or malaria, forced her to leave after two. Although her older daughter subsequently traveled to Surinam and sent home specimens, regret tinged Merian's accounts years afterwards as she was unable to piece together the life cycles of so many insects. One observation she did manage to make was that pretty caterpillars often became drab butterflies, and lackluster caterpillars frequently turned into beautiful butterflies. Of one, she wrote,
I took this caterpillar home with me and it rapidly changed into a pale wood-colored chrysalis, like the one here lying on the twig; two weeks later, towards the end of January 1700, this most beautiful butterfly emerged, looking like polished silver overlaid with the loveliest ultramarine, green and purple, and indescribably beautiful; its beauty cannot possibly be rendered with the paintbrush.
She did, however, manage to depict a long list of plants and animals, often showing them in various stages of their life cycles. Her picture of a pomegranate and morpho butterfly depicted realistic damage to leaves caused by hungry insects. Morpho wings she likened to peacock feathers, and said the insect must be seen "as it beggars description."
Back in Holland, Merian could have profited nicely from selling her wildlife paintings to rich buyers, but she was the daughter of a printer, and a believer in sharing knowledge. In 1705, she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium — simultaneously in Latin and Dutch. The book brought her recognition, but not great wealth, and she had to sell specimens and paintings from time to time to keep afloat. She also worked on illustrations for work by the "blind seer of Ambon," Georgius Everhardus Rumphius. Merian lived until 1717, and the day she was buried was apparently the day that Peter the Great's personal physician arranged to have some of her papers shipped to St. Petersburg. The doctor so admired her personal study book, which she had maintained since girlhood, that he kept it for himself. Merian's corpse was treated with less care, and she may have been buried in an unmarked, pauper's grave.
Merian's daughters were both accomplished artists. A year after Merian's death, her younger daughter moved with her own family to St. Petersburg, where she was commissioned to paint specimens from the czar's curiosity cabinet and give museum tours. She became the first woman employed by the Russian Academy of Sciences, though she probably struggled financially as her mother had.
Merian's work certainly did contain some errors, but no one's work was error free. Accuracy was an extra tough standard in her day, when art couldn't just show plants and animals, it also had to communicate the right symbolic meaning. Each plant carried its own message, and the larger composition had its own larger message, too. Merian's stepfather Marrel greatly admired the emotionally tortured Caravaggio, and just as Caravaggio suggested life's fleeting nature with crumpled foliage and bruised produce, Merian showed the passage of time in her own work. A bud, a flower in full bloom, and a dead flower chewed upon by bugs could all inhabit the same twig in one of her pictures. It showed with a life cycle, and communicated a message.
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was often judged harshly during the 19th century. Merian was occasionally criticized for depicting insects on plants they didn't inhabit, but she explained that she didn't want to show the same plant again and again. One picture that drew particular scorn showed the murder of a hummingbird by a wretched tarantula. Reverend Lansdown Guilding, who, in the words of one historian, "never set foot in Surinam," called the plate "entomological caricature." What upset him, besides the bird-killing spider, was the depiction of ants building bridges with their bodies — a process that surprises no one today. Another critic, William MacLeay, accused Merian of "willful falsehood" after offering birds to similarly large spiders who fled the vertebrates in terror. About the same time, however, W.E. Shuckard presented evidence that big, hairy, disgusting spiders could indeed kill pretty little birds — a noble defense of Merian, even if a sad fact of life.
Merian's life and legacy were rife with contradictions. She enjoyed successes few women of her age did, but her gender still limited what she could do. Members of academic and scientific societies of the 17th and 18th centuries bought and discussed her books but didn't invite her to join their all-male clubs. Born into a family of printers provided her excellent training and contacts, and she was literate in German. But she never learned Latin and never pursued a higher education. She had no formal credentials, but helped invent the field of entomology, and her work was often critiqued by people who knew far less than she did.
After Merian died, new versions of her book saw publication, none of them improvements. In fact, later books were so adulterated with misinformation (not uncommon on those days) that her reputation suffered. It rebounded somewhat when the Soviet Union released some of her original artwork in the 1970s. Today she is remembered as someone with singular focus on metamorphosis and, in a larger sense, the importance of studying the animal's habitat along with its anatomy. On April 2, 2013, Google celebrated Merian's 366th birthday with a Google Doodle, featuring a plant inhabited by multiple insect species next to a cheerful-looking lizard.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated September 16, 2023