March 1, 2021
Maria Sibylla Merian
Women in Science & Nature
Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 70 (from \"Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam\", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper

Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th century, German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator whose keen observations made important discoveries in the field of entomology. She was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. Trained in a family of artists, Merian raised silkworms and began painting them at the age of 13. She wrote in the foreword of her book, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium:

“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.”

She would publish her first book, Neues Blumenbuch, of natural illustrations at the age of 28. After having married her stepfather’s apprentice, Merian became a mother of two, essentially becoming a working mom. Not only was she responsible for home care and child-rearing, but she also supported the family’s income by giving drawing lessons to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families. This allowed her access to some of the best gardens in which she could continue her observations.

After an unhappy marriage, she separated from her husband, choosing to live in a religious community with her mother and two daughters. Eventually divorcing from her husband, she settled in Amsterdam where in 1699 she received permission from the city to travel to Suriname, a country located on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, to study the plant and insect life there. Traveling with her daughter, it was unheard of for a woman to travel a great distance without the accompaniment of a man. Merian sold 255 of her paintings to finance the trip. She lived and studied there for two years, acknowledging in her writings the knowledge of plant life she received from many of the Amerindians and African slaves.

LEFT: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 47 (from \"Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam\", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper. RIGHT: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 (from \"Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam\", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper


Merian’s work is notable in that she documented evidence of the life cycles of 186 insect species disclaiming the widely held belief of the time that insects were spontaneously born from mud. With each illustration, she provided the descriptions of each life cycle noting their habitat and food source. It would be centuries later before the scientific community would depict ecological communities.

Because Merian was a woman with no formal scientific training, there were many who sought to discredit her, saying her body of work was “careless ” and “worthless.” At 52 years of age, she was deemed an old woman given to flights of fancy, especially for her depiction of a bird-eating tarantula. She was also criticized for her depiction of sphinx moths having two tongues, but it was another detail she had observed and others had missed. Though Peter the Great acquired many of her pantings after her death in 1717, her body of work became misused or ignored until the last quarter of the 20th century where she has since become validated and recognized as an important contributor to the sciences.

LEFT: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 5 (from \"Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam\", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper. RIGHT: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 1 (from \"Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam\", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper

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