The questions asked in youth can lead us on journeys that last a lifetime. Sometimes persistence is rewarded with answers.
In the late 17th century there was a common belief that insects were beasts of the devil, spontaneously generated from mud. Few scholars understood the life cycle of the butterfly and insects were certainly not proper subject matter for study, especially for a young lady. Fortunately, curiosity is a powerful thing.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a scientist, botanical artist, engraver and illustrator, famous for her contributions to entomology, the study of insects. Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, her father was the influential Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder, who, unfortunately, died before Maria reached the age of four. Her mother later married the painter Jacob Marrel, who taught his stepdaughter how to draw and paint and encouraged her passion. Because of the circumstances of her birth and youth, she was afforded opportunities for education and “eccentricity” that were not afforded to many people. As a teenager, she began to collect plants and insects which she would sketch and paint.
“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.” —Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname
After her marriage to Marrel’s apprentice, Johann Graff, and the birth of her first child, Johanna, Merian moved to Nuremberg. There she schooled young unmarried women in the fashionable art of drawing, earning money and social standing while continuing her own painting and creating embroidery designs. As frustrating as it might have been to teach dilettantes, this also afforded her access to some of the finest gardens in Europe and a chance to build her reputation. She produced her first work, a book of floral illustrations titled Neues Blumenbuch, New Bloom Book, in 1675.
“In Holland, with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies, I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies Society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.“–Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname
In 1699, at age 52, Merian was honored by the city of Amsterdam, where she had been residing, with a grant allowing her to travel to the South American Dutch Colony of Surinam with her youngest daughter to study the flora and fauna of the tropics. She jumped at the rare chance, beginning two years of field work, collecting specimens and sketching and painting what would become her greatest work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. One of the first scientists to make an expedition in order to observe animal behavior, she wrote down native names and uses for the plants and insects she encountered, many of which she was the first European to discover. She created classification systems for insects and documented their behavior and life cycles. An honest and iconoclastic presence, she also voiced her criticism of the treatment of natives and black slaves by the Dutch. Returning from Surinam out of fear of malaria in 1701, Merian published her volume in 1705. It is still recognized as one of the greatest works of entomology ever produced.