Maria Merian

One scientist, who would have taken issue with last week’s “ignorance is bliss” statement is Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717). This powerhouse of a woman, of whom I knew nothing until the recent fortuitous find of her 2018 biography The Girl Who Drew Butterflies  by Joyce Sidman, not only sought knowledge at every turn, it was insect knowledge she loved above all else, which led her to accomplish feats unusual for any human, let alone for a woman born in the 17th century.

Endpaper detail from “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies” by Joyce Sidman

Maria saw the light of the world in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 2, 1647. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, an engraver and head of a publishing company died when she was only three. Her mother, Johanna Sibylla, remarried. From her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still life painter, Maria learned his craft, and she proved talented from an early age. Including insects on still lifes was popular, and Maria, utterly intrigued, began to observe them closely. Most of their life cycles were unknown (the notion of spontaneous generation was still widespread), and while watching and drawing their transformation from egg to caterpillar to moth or butterfly, she became aware of the process of metamorphosis, which was not common knowledge then.

Uncolored engraving of a garden tiger moth on a hyacinth flower from Maria Merian’s 1679 caterpillar book

Maria married at 18, as was expected of her. Her husband, Johann Andreas Graff, also a painter, was ten years her senior. The couple moved to Nuremberg, where they ran a printing and engraving shop. They had two daughters, Johanna and Dorothea. Unusual for the time, Maria published two books with engravings during her sojourn in Nuremberg, one about flowers, another about caterpillars and their remarkable transformation. Eventually, a second caterpillar volume was to follow.

Her marriage was unhappy, and when her stepfather died in 1681, Maria returned to Frankfurt, ostensibly to support her mother, but likely because she wanted to get away from her husband. Four years later, Maria, her two daughters, and her mother joined a religious community in Holland, where Johann sought her out, demanding her return. Maria refused, and they divorced shortly thereafter.

Maria Merian’s depiction of a frog’s life cycle, including eggs, tadpoles, and adults

Following her mother’s death, Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, Holland’s capital and a thriving port city, where she had access to private curiosity cabinets, precursors to museums, with their plant and animal collections from across the world. Together with her daughters, both accomplished artists in their own right, Maria ran a business. They painted and engraved, and Maria taught fellow women artists, while continuing her scientific observations. No animal or plant was beyond her notice. She became particularly intrigued by specimens sent back from the Dutch colony of Surinam, also known as Dutch Guyana.

Maria determined to travel to Surinam to study its flora and fauna. Against all odds, she and her younger daughter financed their own journey, and, from 1699 to 1701, spent nearly two years in this exotic country at the northern coast of South America. Maria would have preferred to stay longer, but reluctantly returned to Europe because of ill health, likely the result of tropical diseases. They arrived with vivid recollections, volumes of notebooks filled with sketches, myriad animal specimens, as well as seeds, bulbs and pressed flowers.

It took four years, but Maria’s masterpiece, a book about the insects of Surinam, was published in 1705. Sixty gorgeous plates depict the different developmental stages of each species on the animal’s host plant. Critical acclaim followed, but not financial gain, as she barely recovered the cost of publication. The Royal Society of London praised Maria’s work, even if it did not offer her membership (the first woman member would not be admitted for another 250 years).

Banana flower, young bananas and saturnid moth from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

After her death of a stroke at the age of 69, Tsar Peter the Great bought nearly 300 of her watercolors for Russia’s first art museum, later to be curated by Maria’s daughter, Dorothea. She also published her mother’s third European caterpillar book posthumously. Carl Linnaeus, the “inventor” of the binomial nomenclature, cited her extensively in the 10th edition of his 1758 Systema Naturae. In subsequent centuries, Maria’s “amateur” accomplishments were largely forgotten, until she was rediscovered, and recognized as a trailblazer and scientist ahead of her time. Her portrait graced the 500 Deutschmark bill, before the introduction of the Euro.

Pineapple plant and tropical cockroach from Maria Merian’s book “Metamorphis insectorum Surinamensium”

I’m grateful to Joyce Sidman. Her The Girl who drew Butterflies acquainted me with a remarkable woman whose contributions to the life sciences should not be overlooked. 303 years ago to the day, Maria Merian passed away on January 13, 1717.

Bitte verzeiht mir, daß es wegen der Länge dieses Beitrags heute keine deutsche Übersetzung gibt.

70 thoughts on “Maria Merian

  1. What an extraordinary lady. Isn’t it sad how “amateur” naturalists / scientists were celebrated if they were male, and dismissed or forgotten if they were female. Well done to Joyce Sidman for attempting to right that wrong, and to you Tanja for helping spread the word!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad this post inspired you to read and see for yourself, Steve. The book is tailored towards children, but it’s full of interesting biographical and scientific facts, plus a wealth of Maria’s beautiful illustrations. I hope you will enjoy it.


    • I read this on another site: “In January 2017, an article in The New York Times said ‘she was the first to bring together insects and their habitats, including food they ate, into a single ecological composition’.” I couldn’t help thinking of Neltje Blanchan; there’s no indication in Nature’s Garden that she knew of Merian, but I suspect she would have appreciated her work. That other site is here. It allows enlargement of the drawings, which is really interesting, and includes some other botanical artists.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating and probably like most I have never come across her name before. The drawings are remarkable as they are quite lifelike, often in those days things would be drawn exaggerating certain aspects. I look at Audubon’s much praised work but don’t see reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maria Sybilla Merian ist eine wunderbare Zeichnerin und ich bewundere schon lange ihr naturverbundenes, präzises und lebendiges Werk.
    Danke, liebe Tanja, daß Du sie hier der Welt präsentierst und ihr somit nachträglich die verdiente Ehre und Würdigung gibst.
    Herzensgruß von mir zu Dir ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an extraordinary story, artist, and woman! Holy cats, it is amazing what she accomplished given the restrictions on women during that time. I particularly like learning how she discovered how insects reproduced and how the notion of spontaneous generation was popular.
    Thanks so much for posting this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What exquisite drawing and painting. I’ve noted down her name and the author of the book in your images and hope to get some sort of volume of her work.

    Her skill and observations were certainly very noteworthy at a time when women were mere housewives (for the most).

    I only wish I had her skill and while I can/could draw and paint well and was going to take up Botannical Art many years ago, my eyesight has deteriorated too much for close work (which is also why I can’t do much in the way of photo editing I might add). I know some Botannical artists use a magnifying glass to do the fine details but I have great admiration for their tenacity and attention to detail anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maria Merian was unusual on several levels, Vicki, both in her professional and her personal lives. Just think of her leaving her husband and being granted a divorce!

      I also wish I could draw or paint, but I have made peace with the fact that it takes too much of an effort for me to overcome my ineptitude.

      If you end up reading about Maria’s life, I hope it will be enjoyable.


    • Thank you, Julie. I think there have been numerous publications in recent years that bring to light women’s accomplishments through the ages that had been forgotten, or never before mentioned. It’s a step in the right direction.


  6. Maria led an interesting and fruitful life which, as you pointed out, was unusual for a woman of her time. And that fact is a shame. Just imagine how much talent was wasted by the ignorance of a woman’s abilities at that time. Impressive also is her observation of metamorphosis ahead of it’s general knowledge. Such an observant and talented person. I wasn’t aware of this biography but I hope it is inspiring for the young women who read it and decide to follow their own paths.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Steve. Maria was truly ahead of her time and can serve as an inspiration on so many different levels. Fortunately it’s easier for girls and women today, at least in some countries, even if complete equality is still an elusive goal.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Das muß eine sehr beeindruckende Frau gewesen sein. Was für ein abenteuerliches Leben, zu dieser Zeit und dann als Frau. Die Zeit mit ihrer Tochter in Südamerika, die aufwendigen Zeichnungen, die tollen Darstellungen! Hat sie nicht auch ein paar neue Arten bestimmt? Ein schöner Beitrag. Du hast dir viel Mühe gegeben mit ihrer Lebensgeschichte und die Bilder sind immer wieder ein Genuß! Liebe Grüße

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your post made me immediately think of another pioneering German woman from the following century: Caroline Herschel. Initially just the assistant to her famous brother, Caroline eventually carved out her own international reputation as an astronomer. Both Maria and Caroline are tremendous role models for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for pointing her out, Andy. I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t know anything about her. A brief perusal of her online biography shows an impressive list of accomplishments. I will try to remedy my ignorance!


  9. Obviously, I’m well behind in my reading, but there are some posts I save, no matter what, and I’m glad I saved this one. Caroline Herschel came to mind for me as I was reading, as well, and also Emily Dickinson. Although Dickinson wasn’t a botanical artist, her collections of plants and her observations of them were unique for her time.

    This wonderful site includes some of Merian’s work. One of the neat things it provides is the ability to enlarge the drawings to see the detail. Other illustrators are included, as well. The work is just splendid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment on this post, Linda. Another reader mentioned Caroline Herschel, and I had to admit my ignorance to him, but I have since read a little bit about her. It would be fascinating to read an entire biography about her. And thanks for remembering Emily, and for the link to Women Botanical Artists. More fascinating women to get to know!

      Liked by 1 person

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