Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was born on April 2nd, 1647 in Frankfurt on the Main. Her father, Matthaus Merian, the elder, was a well known copperplate engraver and publisher. He was in poor health when Maria was born to his second wife and he died in 1650 in nearby Schwalbach. It is part of the folklore of Maria Sibylla Merian that her father prophesied on his deathbed that the name of Merian would be remembered forever on account of the genius of his then three-year-old daughter. The publishing business was taken over by the children of Matthaus Merian and Maria´s mother received a settlement. She had nothing to do with the business after that.

The more lasting influence was that of Jacob Marell, whom Maria´s mother married in 1651. Marell was born in 1614 in the Dutch painter´s colony Frankentha. He learned his trade from the flower painter Jan i Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684) in Utrecht and from the still-life painter Georg Flegel (1563-1638) in Frankfurt. Already at thirteen Maria Sibylla Merian was interested in the insect and plant world. Secretly she began to catch insects to observe them. She created the first drawings and water-color paintings of insects and plants. In the 17 century interest in insects was unusual, because humans still believed that beetles, worms, larvae and caterpillars were formed from dirt and mud.

Jacob Marell recognized the talent of his stepdaughter and fostered it. During his many long absences from Frankfurt, he entrusted the care of little Maria Sibylla Merian to his student, Abraham Mignon (1640-1679). Maria Sibylla Merian continued her research and she observed, how caterpillars pupated themselves and how out of their cocoons the most beautiful butterflies and moths appeared. She recorded the metamorphosis in all stages as detailed in her sketch book. When she was 28, she published her first book "Neues Blumenbuch" and a short time later her first caterpillar book "Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung". Both books are richly illustrated with colored copperplate prints.

Maria Sibylla Merians special interest was the metamorphosis of the butterflies, which she tells about in her copperplate prints. Normally in the center of her drawings is a plant, that is the food basis and habitat of the caterpillar. This plant can be a garden flower, a meadow flower, a weed, or a vegetable plant.

After Maria´s second marriage ended in divorce in 1685, her eldest daughter, Johanna Helena, married the merchant Jacob Herolt from Bacharach who was involved in trade with the new Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. The picture that Maria Sibylla Merain received of South America and the insight into the living world that resulted from her acquaintance with collectors in Amsterdam such as Nicholas and Jonas Witsen, Livinus Vivinus Vincent and the professor of anatomy, Frederik Ruysch, is thought, to have aroused in her the desire to take the long and perilous journey to Suriname.

She received financial assistance from the city fathers in Amsterdam most likely because of her friendship with Nicolas Witsen the mayor and Jonas Witsen a town clerk. After eight years preparation Maria Sibylla Merian, then fifty-two, and her youngest daughter traveled three month by merchant ship to Suriname. For two years she not only went around the settlements and plantations, but the two women explored the interior and survived many perils. Maria Sibylla Merian documented the metamorphosis of the tropical butterfies and insects. From this experience she created the base of her major work "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium" which she published after the voyage in Amsterdam, 1705. The book became her most famous work, it contains many figures of tropical plants and animals, which were still completely unknown in Europe.

In 1711 Maria Sibylla Merian suffered a stoke and although greatly disabled she continued her work for six more years. She died in Amsterdam on  January the13th, 1717. The register of death lists her as a pauper, but in spite of this she had her own grave. In the same year her daughter published for the first time all three parts of her mothers life´s work under the title Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis dedicated Pia Memoriae Matris Ejus Maria Sibylla Merian and it contained a portrait of Merian in her old age by Houbraken. There are many different versions of how the entire works of this extraordinary woman ended up in Russia. The most reliable version is that the works were purchased by Tsar Peter the Great, during a visit to western Europe, only days before Merian´s death in 1717. Upon the Tsar´s death in 1725, the works were presented to the Academy of Science where they reside today.

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