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Few people had even been interested in the flora and fauna of northern South America until a very remarkable woman, Maria Sibylla Merian, started her project on the insects (and to a large degree, the plants) of the Dutch colony of Surinam. In an period where women hardly traveled alone, studied science, or took part in a unilateral business venture, Merian stands out as one of the greatest early woman innovators and the first person to actually document some of the natural history of the tropical New World.

How did a woman of the 17th Century actually slip the shackles of convention and become a premier artist and scientist who's work is still respected today?   Like all life stories this result rested on numerous improbable steps.  Merian was born in Frankfort, Germany, on April 2, 1647.  Her father was a well respected publisher, Matthäus Merian, who was of Swiss extraction.  However he died when Merian was three and her mother remarried to an artist, Jacob Marrel, who taught the young girl painting.  Unlike most girls of her time Merian was fascinated with insects, and she used these and various plants as her subjects.

In 1665 She married another artist, Andreas Graff.  They had two daughters, the second, Dorothea Maria, being born in Nuremberg, where they had moved in 1670.  Although women were not permitted to be professional artists in Germany, Maria got around that stricture by becoming a "modeler of embroidery."  Her interest in insects was enhanced by her use of silk for her early illustrations. The interest in the silkworm led to involvement in a study of metamorphosis of caterpillars, which she eventually published with her own illustrations. She also eventually realized that with her talent she was allowed to become a professional scientific illustrator. In 1685 she left her husband and spent ten years in a religious community.  After this she and her daughters moved to Amsterdam to start her own business as a scientific illustrator. Her daughters followed in her footsteps and also became talented illustrators.

Finally Merian (at the age of 52) embarked with Dorothea Maria, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. There she worked on a five-year study of the insects (and incidentally the plants that served as hosts.) However her work was cut short because of malaria, that scourge of the tropics, and she and her younger daughter moved back to Amsterdam. In 1705 she published her seminal work "Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam," a work that to this day is highly respected.  She and her daughters made a living with their publications, but by the time she died Merian was destitute.  She was in negotiations with the Czar, Peter the Great, to sell him her work, but she died before that came to be. Fortunately for her daughter, Dorothea Maria, the offer was extended to her, her mother's work was shipped to the Czar and she left for St. Petersberg in 1718 to do in addition a commission for the Czar illustrating specimens.  

A few years ago one of our associates at the university where I worked presented the department with a book of Merian's wonderful illustrations, as well as a vintage print of hers of a butterfly.

References: Books.

Todd, Kim. 2007. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Orlando.

References: Web Pages.

Heroine of the Month (November): Maria Sibylla Merian, Scientist & Artist72.

Maria Sibylla Merian. Wikipedia.

Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science (Getty Museum).

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Mon May 28, 2012 at 12:12 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Sexism and Patriarchy, J Town, and Backyard Science.

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