“She’s a pretty cool lady!” I crassly blurt out to the curator. The curator pauses for a second to consider my slightly blunt statement, but she gets it and she nods. “Yes she was a pioneer and well ahead of her time.”
Much more eloquently put than, “She’s a pretty cool lady.”
I am a great one for getting historical girl crushes and this seventeenth century new love interest is the artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian.
I am at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace where a new exhibition Maria Merian’s Butterflies introduces us to this remarkable woman, whose intrepid and curious spirit mixed with artistic talent brought the fascinating flora and fauna of South America to Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century.
Of the works included in the exhibition, many of them are from Merian’s ground-breaking work Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The metamorphosis of the insects of Suriname), published in 1705.
Beautifully vibrant watercolours on vellum display compositions of the lifecycle of different species of butterflies in immaculate detail; from caterpillar to chrysalis and then to butterfly, all thoughtfully placed on the natural habitat of each particular species.
What made Merian’s work so remarkable was that she produced a body of work that went against the long-held belief that insects came from the mud, and much more importantly that metamorphosis was not a re-birth of a new species but the development and life cycle of one, and this was all well before Charles Darwin’s time.
Maria Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany to a Swiss family of engravers and publishers. Her father died when she was young and her mother remarried the flower and still-life painter Jacob Marrel, who encouraged the young Maria to draw and paint.
Similar to myself and my sister, who spent our pre-adolescent years collecting stick insects and countless jars of slugs, from the age of 13 Merian captured and cultivated plants and insects in order to create her first images, which would reflect her later work.
A much more productive outcome than that of my sister and I, which resulted in slug slime-covered hands and several over-populated stick insect tanks due to a rather-too-successful breeding program.
In the foreword for Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Merian described her early years, “I spent my time investigating insects. 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.”
Merian married in 1665 and subsequently had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria.
She was able to continue her passions by teaching painting and creating images of collected flora and fauna, which were used for embroidery patterns.
These pursuits raised her social status and gave her access to the homes and gardens of many wealthy families allowing her to add to her collection.
She published collections of engravings in 1675, 1677 and 1680, which were popular in elite circles but never given any real notice by scientific groups, primarily as Latin was still the official language used amongst scientists.
By 1690 Merian had left her unhappy marriage and moved with her daughters to one of the most exciting cities in seventeenth century Europe, Amsterdam.
Here, during the Dutch Golden Age, she thrived.
With colonies around the world Amsterdam was a hot bed for exotic and fascinating imports including plants, fruits and collections of unfamiliar species.
Amsterdam was home to a hugely impressive Botanical House as well as the Hortus Library.
It housed many scientific books that would have been of great use to Merian.
In 1699, at the age of 52, the artist and her daughter, Dorothea, took the two-month treacherous voyage to the Dutch Colony of Suriname in South America, Marian having sold the contents of her Amsterdam studio to finance the trip.
She described her desire to document and understand the life cycle of insects as the reason behind what she called a “long dreamed of journey to Suriname.”
Over the next two years she would amass a large collection of drawings, paintings and notes from her studies in this exotic locale.
Gathering insects and their desired feeding flora from Suriname’s often inhospitable terrain, she cultivated insects and made detailed notes on their habitat, habits, classifications and uses to the indigenous people.
Sadly Merian’s trip was cut short in 1701 when she was forced to return to Amsterdam due to illness.
Over the next four years she prepared all her research for publication and in 1705 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was published to critical acclaim by scholars, enthusiasts and scientists alike.
The main body of work in Maria Merian’s Butterflies shows the original paintings from this extraordinary publication, by a woman whose adventures no doubt raised eyebrows.
The works in the exhibition are so fresh and brilliantly coloured it is hard to believe they are 300 years old.
The plants and insects are recreated in extraordinary detail.
Each watercolour (women were not allowed to use oil paint as a result of the guild system) shows a particular species of butterfly which Merian would have nurtured, documenting its development from caterpillar to chrysalis and then to butterfly.
The fully formed butterflies are shown in different profiles (wings opened and closed) for full scientific classification.
Merian was one of the first people to study insects through observation of their behaviour; this can be seen in Grape Vine with Gaudy Sphinx Moth 1702-1703.
This image depicts the Gaudy Sphinx Moth caterpillar in two different behavioural states; at maximum length and curled and contracting as a defence mechanism particular to that species.
In Giant Sphinx Moth 1702-03, Merian wrote a side note describing how the caterpillar “thrashed around wildly” when she touched it and that when it became a chrysalis this too “was very restless.”
Other notes added alongside her paintings included comments on the tastes of different fruit that some of the insects she studied used as habitat.
Along with Ripe Pineapple with Dido Longwing Butterfly 1702-03 Merian notes of the pineapple’s “unsurpassable flavour”, but warns readers of the hairs on the fruit.
In Branch of Banana Tree with Caterpillar and Moth 1702-03, she touches on the banana’s unpleasant flavour, and that the indigenous people used the leaves as platters on which bread was baked. She took the time to talk to the indigenous people of Suriname, and was angered by the treatment of these people by some of the Dutch Colonists as well as the way the new plantations were run.
In Grape Vine with Gaudy Sphinx Moth 1702-1703, she criticised the lack of grape cultivation in Suriname, as grapes were instead imported from Europe. This indicates to us that Merian was very much in tune with humanist ideas and social empathy.
Merian said that she wanted Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium to be enjoyed by both scientists and art lovers. Although she painted what she had witnessed concerning the insects behaviour and habitat, she was very carful in not letting this take away any artistic intent.
Her compositions are very clearly thought out, for example in Banana with Teucer Owl Butterfly and Rainbow Whiptail Lizard 1702-03, she stated that she added the whiptail “chiefly to decorate the plate.” The beauty of many of the butterflies clearly inspired her artistic temperament.
In Branch of an unidentified tree with Menelaus Blue Morpho Butterfly 1702-03, she used silver paint to create the iridescent quality of the butterflies wings. She told readers that the wings looked like “polished silver overlaid with the loveliest ultramarine, green and purple, its beauty cannot possibly be rendered with the paint brush.”
Maria Merian’s Butterflies will later move up to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, marking the 300 year anniversary of her death.
The legacy left behind by the fantastic works seen in this exhibition, which can be viewed along side a rare counterproof copy of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, was that of a groundbreaking new method of research and discovery.
David Attenborough considers Maria Merian to be among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology, providing new knowledge concerning the lives of insects and breaking through old ideas of metamorphosis.
A seventeenth century copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is displayed amongst Merian’s work, emphasising the artist’s enlightened modern way of thinking and working. I feel anyone who visits this exhibition will definitely go through their own metamorphosis and come out the other end a fully fledged Maria Merian fan.
And you will definitely agree with me, she’s a pretty cool lady.
Lynsey Scott, Special Features Correspondent London, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
The Queen’s Gallery,
15th April- 9th October 2016