From Larva to Painted Lady:
The Life of Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647 to Johanna Sibylla Heim and Mattaus Merian. Her father died when she was young, but both he and her stepfather Jacob Marrell were well known artists. Marrell taught and collaborated with Merian on paintings throughout her childhood. The style of the time was to paint flowers, generally tulips, and add in small animals and insects for symbolism such as a butterfly for resurrection and a snail for caution. Merian took this standard and turned a scientists eye on her artistic renditions.
Merian began observing and documenting the life cycles of insects when she was thirteen years old. She started out with silkworms, making detailed illustrations of every phase of their lives. Later, Merian began raising insects in order to better observe them for her notes. Eventually, her studies expanded further to the metamorphoses of moths and butterflies. When she was eighteen, she married and had daughters, Johanna Helena and, ten years later, Dorothea Maria. Late in her life she decided, after seeing insect specimens brought from across the world in the parlors of her fellow naturalists, to undertake an expedition to Surinam to study the life cycle of those new insects in person. She took her daughter, Dorothea, on this trip but they had to return after two years because of Merian’s health issues.
Neues Blumenbuch was the first book Merian published. It was a book of etchings of flowers that she had produced. Merian would follow this artistic endeavor with her more naturalist publications of Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung in 1679 detailing her studies of the life cycles of moths and butterflies, and part two of Raupen was published in 1681. Maria Sibylla gathered all of her paintings and notes into a notebook when she lived with her half brother in a Protestant community among other naturalists. This notebook was never printed, but remains an important source of information. Merian detailed the growth of frog eggs and tadpoles before Dutch microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek published his findings on the same subject. Merian’s most famous work is Metamorphosis which is the compendium of information she compiled about plants, insects, arachnids, amphibians, and reptiles she found in Surinam.
Maria Sibylla Merian’s influence in studying the natural world and in entomology in particular cannot be overstated. Before her investigations, most people, both laypeople and scientists, believed in the dark ages notions of insect birth which included them springing from mud fully formed. Merian documented the lives and interactions of hundreds of New World species. Her work is so detailed that modern entomologists and natural scientists can still identify a majority of the species she depicted. Merian set a standard for entomological investigation and is known as the first famous female scientist of the Netherlands, where she spent a good portion of her life. Her name is engraved among a few others in the facade of the Artis Library in Amsterdam, cementing her place as a prominent scientist.