These intricate, coloured frontispieces introduce two volumes (1679 and 1683) of German-born Maria Sybilla Merian’s second published work Der Raupen Wunderbare Vervandeling und Sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (The Wonderful Transformation and Singular Plant-Food of Caterpillars). Female artists in the late seventeenth century were not unheard of; however, they did not enjoy the general freedom of subject matter, or the public appeal, of male artists. Maria herself came from a family of male artists: her father, Mattheus Merian; her step-father, Jacob Marell, from whom she learnt to paint; her two half-brothers, and her husband, Johan Andreas Graff. What set Maria apart – and earned her work a place in prestigious art collections around the world – was her meticulous investigation of insect metamorphosis and her comprehensive artistic representation of the process.
Each small, leather-bound volume of Der Raupen contains fifty hand-coloured, copper-plate prints etched and possibly coloured by Maria, though her daughters, Joanna and Dorothea (later artists in their own right), may have assisted with the colouring; the fine artwork is not quite perfect, suggesting the input of less experienced artists. Each plate portrays a single plant, inhabited by all the life-cycle stages of the specific butterfly or moth for which the plant shown provides the major food source. It is also accompanied by a few pages of descriptive text in German, written by Maria and based on her own observations. It is this detailed and holistic understanding and presentation of caterpillar transformation which Maria pioneered.
Frontispiece works may be easily overlooked amidst Maria’s wealth of artworks, yet in terms of their circular design, they represent a tiny subset of her work. Maria established the circular, wreath-style frontispiece design in her first published work, Der Neues Blumenbuch. Published in three parts when Maria was in her twenties, this was largely a flower pattern book for embroidery (a skill she learnt from her Walloon mother) and each part was fronted by a similar design incorporating a variety of flowers.
The first frontispiece shown here, however, is quite unique in her collection; though retaining the oval shape of earlier pieces, Maria chose a very different style and a very specific plant for the first volume of Der Raupen. The plant she chose was the mulberry, also represented in different form as the first plate of the first volume confirming its important place in her life. Aged thirteen, it was the mulberry and associated silkmoth which captured Maria’s attention and became the subject of her intense naturalist study. She deliberately chose this plant and moth, representing to her the genesis of an expanding interest in insect metamorphosis, as the front image for her first serious published work.
The style of this particular frontispiece suggests, however, a self-conscious entrance into the world of published naturalist art. The image of the mulberry retains the early frontispiece shape but has been executed in the style of one of the book’s plates. The image is delicate, precise and understated. Two thin strands of mulberry encircle the title text; crossed cut ends at the base rise around each side and join at the top by the merest tip of an overarching leaf. As befitting an image representing the nature of the book, a number of leaves show signs of having been eaten, and each stage of the silkmoth’s life-cycle is portrayed. Insect life is represented by two moths, four caterpillars, two egg clumps with emerging caterpillars, one ladybird and one fly. Maria’s name is given in the base of the stems, her maiden name (to which she would return later) on the upper stem and her married name of Gräffin on the lower stem, though her name is almost lost in the colouring. The looped shape, which perfectly contains the book title, alludes to the circular nature of the life cycle and echoes back to Maria’s earliest works: it is both familiar and novel.
The second image reflects the format of the first illustration; the artwork similarly rises from the base with the uppermost flower petals just touching at their tips but the contrast between the simplicity of the first volume frontispiece and the exuberant blossoming of the second is quite remarkable; the latter overflows with a profusion of shapes and colours. Flowers portrayed include buttercups, cornflowers, orchids and gentian, and no less than twenty insects are to be found in the image including ants, beetles, ladybirds and bees. Furthermore, in this image, Maria’s name is boldly placed at the base of the flowers: ‘Maria Sibÿlla Gräffin sculpsit’. This is no longer the work of a nervous entrant into the world of serious naturalist representations; in this design Maria returns to her youthful roots and proclaims a substantial confidence in her own work.
Two years after the publication of the second volume of Der Raupen, Maria left her husband to live with her mother and young daughters in a Labadist (a Protestant sect) commune in Friesland where she studied local caterpillar transformations. This work formed the basis of a third volume of Der Raupen, though it was not published until after her death in 1717. As such, the two early Der Raupen volumes stand as a transitional step between her early pattern books and her most ambitious and well-known work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamernsium (1705).
In 1699 Maria travelled to Surinam with her daughter, an astonishing journey for a single woman to make in this period. She had been inspired to travel by the sight of insects brought back to Holland from the East and West Indies and went with the specific aim of studying and recording Surinam’s ‘beautiful creatures’. Metamorphosis included sixty folio plates showcasing her Surinam artwork. A large number of these beautiful and exotic plates were collected by King George III and form part of a current exhibition of Maria’s work entitled ‘Maria Merian’s Butterflies’ at The Queen’s Gallery, London.
There is no doubt that Maria was a remarkable woman and her work represents an extraordinary blend of art and science. These two frontispiece pictures provide us with a glimpse into her life; they echo her past and hint towards her future. More recently, Maria’s portrait has graced German coinage and commemorative stamps and she has even been the subject of a Google doodle; with many admirers of her work and frequent exhibitions, the world of Maria Sybilla Merian continues to bloom in the twenty-first century.
Avril Leach, MEMS, University of Kent
Edited: Jayne Wackett
Maria Merian’s Butterflies, Exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 15 April to 9 October 2016 https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions/qgbp/maria-merians-butterflies
Maria Sybilla Merian, Der Raupen Wunderbare Vervandeling und Sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (In Nürnberg : zu finden bey Johann Andreas Graffen in Frankfurt, und Leipzig bey David Funken. Gedruckt bey Andreas Knortzen 1679 [-1683]) CCL W/S-10-5/6
Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995)
Kay Etheridge, ‘Maria Sibylla Merian: The First Ecologist?’ in Women and Science, 17th Century to Present: Pioneers, Activists and Protagonists, ed. by Donna Spalding Andréolle, Veronique Molinari (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011)
The Maria Sybilla Merian Society: http://www.themariasibyllameriansociety.humanities.uva.nl/
Botanical Art and Artists: http://www.botanicalartandartists.com/about-maria-sibylla-merian.html