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Maria Sibylla Merian: a fascination for metamorphosis

Artist travelled to Suriname in 17th century to document caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies

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Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a remarkable woman by the measure of any era, whose life and work were eclipsed by scientific advances and then recovered by art history and feminism in the last quarter of the 20th century and today.

Born in Frankfurt where her family were publishers, Merian was introduced to art by her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter. As a child she developed a passion for insects, an interest that set the course for the rest of her life. She married and lived variously in Nuremberg, Friesland and then Amsterdam, over the years publishing engraved collections of plant illustrations and giving lessons, raising a family and briefly joining a religious sect.

In 1691 she and her family settled in Amsterdam where she divorced. In the markets she saw many specimens of (dead) exotic insects destined for collectors, but her true interest was the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies and she became determined to illustrate, from direct observation, that transformation about which little was known. At the age of 52 she sold all that she had and sailed to the Dutch colony of Suriname where, with her daughter Dorothea, she collected, drew and painted—in watercolour on vellum (it was unladylike to paint in oil)—caterpillars, their chrysalises and butterflies, along with native flora and fauna. After two years, her health began to fail and she returned to Amsterdam.

Four years later, she published in 1705 the stunningly illustrated Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the insects of Suriname), published in Dutch and Latin in three folio editions, each with 60 illustrations: one of uncoloured prints; one of hand-coloured prints; and a deluxe edition (only two examples remain, one in the UK’s Royal Collection) with individually painted pages. The book was a bestseller (five editions by 1771), bought by collectors, scientists, libraries and many simply for the beauty of the illustrations. With an eye to her purse, she also published sets of 60 loose hand-coloured prints, one of which was bought by George III. She died in Amsterdam in 1717.

Maria Merian’s Butterflies at The Queen’s Gallery (15 April-9 October) shows 50 of her works that will fire the imagination of any viewer to wonder at the bravery and talent of this artist, entomologist and businesswoman.

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