Born in Frankfurt in 1647, Maria Sibylla Merian was, from a very early age, fascinated by insects and, in particular, the process by which butterflies and moths made a complete transformation from an egg to a beautiful flying creature. Praised by David Attenborough as being among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology, she was also a gifted artist and the vibrant illustrations of the flora and fauna she studied are now on display at the Queen’s Gallery in London.
Moths and butterflies constitute the order of Lepidoptera, the word deriving from two ancient Greek words meaning scaly and wing. Fossil remains indicate they have existed for at least 130 million years, around the same time as the flowering plants from which they gather food and there are more than 180,000 different species. They start life as an egg then move to the larval or caterpillar stage before becoming a chrysalis in the case of a butterfly and a cocoon for a moth. It is from this stage that the adult, flying insect emerges, living anything between a week or up to nine months for some of the larger species. But during Merian’s era very little at all was known about their life cycle and the changes these insects underwent to become adults.
In fact, it was only during Merian’s lifetime that the first experiments took place to disprove the prevailing theory that insects spontaneously generated from rotting matter. Before the 1660s, there had been a general belief that insects evolved whole from decomposing vegetable matter and that butterflies were generated from the dead bodies of caterpillars. This theory was first promulgated by Aristotle in the fourth century BC but it took more than two thousand years for an Italian biologist, Francesco Redi (1626-97) to disprove the Greek philosopher with a simple experiment.
He simply compared pieces of meat left in sealed and unsealed jars and found that maggots only appeared on the meat left open to the air, proving that insects were not born from rotting matter. In Leiden, Jan Swammerdam (1637-80) used a microscope to demonstrate that metamorphosis represented different life stages of the same insect rather than being a rebirth of a different animal and Swammerdam’s contemporary Jan Goedart (like Merian, a painter) published a book in the 1660s showing the different stages of insect development.
Merian herself was destined to become an artist and illustrator. Her father had been an engraver and book publisher and her stepfather, Jacob Marrel was a flower and still-life painter who encouraged her to draw and paint. She was trained by his pupil Abraham Mignon and painted her first images of insects and plants when she was thirteen from specimens she had captured, an approach she was to follow in later life. As Dr George McGavin, the British entomologist and explorer has said, “Maria Sibylla Merian was an influential entomological pioneer. Merian got the insect ‘bug’ at an early age and never lost her obsession.”
Almost inevitably Merian married an artist, Johann Andreas Graff and had two daughters by him, Johanna and Dorothea. When living in Nuremberg, Graff’s home town, she continued to paint and created embroidery designs. What was more lucrative for her, however, were the drawing lessons she gave to the unmarried daughters of wealthy Nurembergers – whom she termed the Jungferncompaney, or virgin group – which gave her access to their homes and gardens where she found further specimens for her collection. She published her first work on insects in 1679, a two-volume treatise on her favourite subject, their metamorphosis.
Unfortunately, Merian’s marriage was not a happy one and she eventually moved with her mother and daughters to join a puritan Protestant community, known as the Labadists, in a castle in Friesland, in the Netherlands. The commune broke up in 1691 and Merian relocated to Amsterdam, divorcing the following year. Her older daughter Johanna was married that same year to an Amsterdam merchant with business links to the Dutch colony of Suriname, on the northeast coast of South America.
Merian was well connected in Amsterdam and was able to visit the homes of collectors of flora and fauna who would keep cabinets of curiosities, private collections which they had bought from merchants and traders who brought them back from across the world to the thriving Dutch seaport. This only piqued Merian’s interest further, but there was one problem – all the specimens were dead and if she were to successfully attain her scientific and artistic goals she needed them to be alive in order to study their life cycles and behaviour. “She wanted to know how the butterflies and moths that she saw pinned into cases and illustrated in books developed from eggs, through caterpillars and pupae to emerge as the large, colourful winged insects she was able to admire in Amsterdam,” says Kate Heard, the curator of Maria Merian’s Butterflies.
Suriname offered Merian everything she might want in terms of animal and plant life and, thanks to her daughter’s marriage, she would have ready-made connections on arrival. She sold the contents of her studio including 255 of her own paintings and raised sufficient funds to travel, then aged 52, with her younger daughter Dorothea to the colony for what was planned to be a five-year stay. Braving both shipwreck and pirate attack, they arrived there in the late summer of 1699.
They rented a house in the main settlement, the capital Paramaribo, then nothing more than a collection of around 500 wooden dwellings. The heat and humidity were ferocious but this did not stop Merian venturing into the nearby forests to collect lepidoptera, plants and other specimens including frogs and lizards, to study back at her house-cum-studio. She reared the insects there, always careful to provide them with exactly the right host plants and food to study their life cycle in detail and she kept meticulous notes of dates and time, detailing even the smallest changes in appearance of her specimens, just as a scientist would today.
But the process was not without its difficulties, as Kate Heard describes. “Merian kept her chrysalises in wooden boxes but some chewed their way out, others died or were taken over by parasitic wasps which hatched instead of the butterflies she was expecting and her work was continually plagued by ants. And all this done in debilitating tropical heat with the risk of contracting a serious illness at any time.”
Sadly for Merian she did become ill, probably with malaria, after only two years in Suriname, forcing her to leave the colony with Dorothea and return to Amsterdam in 1701. There she began work on her magnum opus,Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, or The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, published by the author in Amsterdam in 1705 and dedicated to ‘all lovers and investigators of nature’.
Kate Heard explains that the detailed, life-size representation of insects “on the correct host plant was ground-breaking, and would be followed by subsequent entomological illustrators. Maria has been described as the ‘first ecologist’, due to her pioneering interest in the relationship between animals and plants, and her work to study insects in their environment.”
This was a work of very high quality aimed at wealthy, specialist collectors. It consisted of 60 large colour plates opposite an explanatory text where Merian described exactly what the lepidoptera were and how they behaved in the wild. And, as Kate Heard emphasises, what was significant was the fact that “in each of the plates depicting a metamorphosis, Merian included the caterpillar, chrysalis and resulting butterfly or moth, the latter shown with both closed and open wings.”
The work was originally published in Dutch and Latin, the latter then still the language of science, and later in French, but there never was an English edition. It was bought by the cognoscenti, learned institutions and Merian’s fellow scientists and artists and Merian also published at least two luxury sets of plates for separate sale. One of these is now in the Royal Collection having been acquired by George III in the second half of the 18th century and forms the basis of the exhibition itself. The copy of Merian’s Metamorphosis on display in the gallery was acquired during the reign of William IV.
Merian died in 1717 and one report suggests she was classified as a pauper. This would seem a very sad end for a woman who is now lauded as a scientific great and who had plants, butterflies and beetles named in her honour. When the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was compiling his taxonomy of living organisms, he cited Merian’s Metamorphosis more than 130 times, so highly-regarded was the work.
As George McGavin says, “what’s interesting about Merian is that she has the eye of an artist, she’s highly skilled, but she has the heart of a scientist. She’s observing, she wants to understand the natural world and she wants to share that….showing this amazing world to an agog audience. And she is a very early pioneer of the science that has kept me going for all my adult career – entomology.”