Maria Sibylla Merian: artist whose passion for insects changed science

2 April 2013 by GrrlScientist, posted in Art & scientific illustration

SUMMARY: Today's Google Doodle honours one of the world's first scientific illustrators (and entomologists!), Maria Sibylla Merian


This lovely graphic is done in the style of German scientific illustrator and naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who was selected to be honoured by today's Google Doodle.
Image: Google.

If you love art, then you may know that today is the birthday of one of the world's most talented scientific illustrators, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Long before the camera was invented, she acted as the world's eyes by painting stunning and scientifically accurate pictures of flowers and later, of insects.

Although she was one of the world's first entomologists, it's likely you have never heard of her: she certainly is not as well-known as she deserves to be – even among professional entomologists. This sad reality may be the motivation behind Google honouring her with a specially designed Google Doodle today, on the 366th anniversary of her birth in Frankfurt am Main.

Merian was a remarkable individual. Not only was she an accomplished artist, but she was also an excellent naturalist and a bold explorer, too. After separating from her artist-husband, she relocated to Amsterdam with her two daughters and supported her family by selling her paintings. But Merian soon became spellbound by the stunning array of tropical flora and fauna that returning travelers brought with them from the Dutch colony of Suriname, located in South America. Her extraordinary talents and unusual interests quickly gained her numerous invitations to view many of the natural history collections amassed by the wealthy elites of Amsterdam.

Inspired by her passion for flowers and insects (particularly butterflies), Merian was determined to visit Suriname so she could study and paint the local insects and plants from living individuals instead of from pinned or prepared specimens. She worked hard; painting and studying the local collections for eight years before the city of Amsterdam awarded her a grant to travel to Suriname to paint its flora and fauna – an almost unheard of achievement at the time because such grants were typically awarded only to men.

Accompanied by her younger daughter, Dorothea, the women set sail for Suriname in 1699. After two years, Merian fell ill with malaria so she and her daughter cut their work short and returned to Amsterdam. Despite her illness, Merian published her Magnus Opus, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, three years later. This beautiful book is filled with paintings of Suriname's plants and animals, especially of moths and butterflies, as well as beetles and spiders, and even paintings of snakes and lizards. Many of these tropical species were unknown to Europeans at the time.

Debilitated by a stroke in 1715 that left her partially paralysed, Merian died a pauper in 1717 at the age of 70. But her passion for insects had changed science forever. Contrary to the prevailing notion of the day that insects spontaneously arose from the mud, Merian discovered this was not at all true. She was one of the first naturalists who actually cultivated live insects, which gave her powerful insights into their natural history and behaviours. Merian was one of the first scientists to learn that many insects go through distinct developmental stages and, through her lavish and accurate paintings, she was the first to document these life stages for the public.

As an artist, Merian's work had a strong influence upon scientific illustration. In addition to the accuracy and realism of her paintings, Merian's pictures of insects were the first to depict all the different life stages and the chrysalis for each species on its particular food plant. Once ridiculed for her fierce independence and for her unladylike devotion to painting pictures of insects, Merian is now recognised as one of the best insect (and flower) scientific illustrators of her day – and indeed, of all time.

This video will give you some appreciation for Merian's beautiful paintings and drawings:


[video link]

You can learn more about Maria Sibylla Merian's extraordinary life and work in Kim Todd's biography; Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis [Amazon UK; Amazon US]. Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen also tells me that Taschen translated her masterpiece, Insects of Surinam, into three languages (English, French and German) and published it in 2009.

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NOTE: this piece was slightly modified from the original, which was first published on my Guardian blog.

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