Maria Sibylla Merian, plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.

Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, Early Archivists of the Natural World

Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Pomegranate: Butterfly and Fallen Pomegranate, detail, about 1665, Watercolor on vellum, 21-1/8 x 15-1/4", Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Dwarf Morning Glory with Metamorphosis of Convolvulus Hawk Moth (Convolvulus arvensis with metamorphosis of Agrius convolvuli), 1683, Hand-colored engraving in The Caterpillar Book (vol. 2, plate 25), 8-1/8 x 6-5/8", Library of the Zoological Institute, Saint Petersburg. Right, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Metamorphosis of the Lappet Moth (metamorphosis of Gastropacha quercifolia), 1679, Watercolor on vellum, study for The Caterpillar Book (vol. 1, plate 17), 22-5/8 x 16", Stadel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Right, Johanna Helena Herolt, German, Yellow Crown Imperial, about 1696–97, Watercolor on vellum, 14-13/16 x 11-7/8", Art Museum of the Federal State of Niedersachsen, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Garden Hyacinth with Metamorphosis of Garden Tiger (Hyacinthus orientalis with metamorphosis of Arctia caja), 1979, Hand-colored transfer print in The Caterpillar Book (vol. 1, plate 5), 8-3/8 x 6-5/16", Library of the Zoological Institute, Saint Petersburg. Right, Johanna Helena Herolt, German, Yellow Crown Imperial, about 1696–97, Watercolor on vellum, 14-13/16 x 11-7/8", Art Museum of the Federal State of Niedersachsen, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Spring Flowers in a Chinese Vase, 1680, Hand-colored engraving in The New Book of Flowers, 12-13/16 x 8-3/8", Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Right, Johanna Helena Herolt, Blue Passion Flower with Butterfly, about 1695-98, Watercolor on vellum, 14-11/16 x 11-7/8", Art Museum of the Federal State of Niedersachsen, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Branch of a Guava Tree with Leaf-cutter Ants, Army Ants, Pink-toed Tarantulas, Huntsman spiders, and a Ruby-topaz Hummingbird (Psidium Guineese with Atta cephalotes, genus Eciton, Avicularia aviculana, Heteropoda benatoria, and Chrysolampis mosquitus), 1719, Hand-colored transfer print in The Insects of Suriname (plate 18), 20-7/8 x 14-3/4", The Getty Research Institute. Right, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Pomegranate with Blue Morpho Butterflies and Banded Sphinx Moth Caterpillar (Punica granatum with Morpho menelaus and Eumorpha fasciatus), about 1705, Watercolorand gum arabic over partial transfer print on vellum, from The Insects of Ssuriname (plate 9), 14-5/8 x 11-7/8", The Royal Collection, © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Dwarf Caiman and False Coral Snake (Paleosuchus palpebrosus with Anilius scytale), 1719, Hand-colored etching in The Insects of Suriname (plate 69), 15-3/8 x 20-7/8", Universiteits-
bibliotheek Groningen, Photo Dirk Fennema, Haren, Netherlands.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Pomegranate: Butterfly and Fallen Pomegranate, about 1665, Watercolor on vellum, 21-1/8 x 15-1/4", Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Right, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Moonflower with Bess Beetle and Larva and Woodboring Beetle and Larva (Ipomoea alba with Passalus interruptus and Euchroma gigantea), about 1705, Watercolor and gum arabic over partial transfer print on vellum in The Insects of Suriname (Plate 50), 28-1/2 x 21-1/2", The Royal Collection, © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Left, Maria Sibylla Merian, German, Heliconia acuminata, about 1705, Watercolor over partial transfer print on vellum in The Insects of Suriname (plate 54), 28-1/2 x 21-1/2", The Royal Collection © 2008 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Right, Georg Flegel, German, Iris, Narcissus, Fritillary, and Hornet: Iris and Hornet, about 1620-30, Watercolor on vellum, 9-1/4 x 6-13/16", Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Georg Flegel, German, Iris, Narcissus, Fritillary, and Hornet: Iris and Hornet, detail, about 1620-30, Watercolor on vellum, 9-1/4 x 6-13/16", Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstich-kabinett, Berlin.

Maria Sibylla Merian, plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.

Maria Sibylla Merian, plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.

 

J. Paul Getty Museum
Getty Center

1200 Getty Center Drive
310-440-7300
Los Angeles
Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters:
Women of Art and Science
June 10-August 31, 2008

“So I was goaded to undertake a huge and costly trip, traveling to Suriname in America, a hot and humid land where swarms of insects are there for the capture.”

— Maria Sibylla Merian

In the 17th century, when insects were called “beasts of the devil,” and women were virtually excluded from the field of science, a young German woman named Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) dedicated her life to the study and depiction of the metamorphosis of insects. Merian’s extraordinary accomplishments in art and science and those of her most important pupils — her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria — will be on view in Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science, the first major exhibition of Merian’s work in America.

The exhibition will explore various aspects of Merian’s career, including her hand-colored publications on flowers and insects, her successful business venture in Amsterdam as a specimen-supplier for the collectors and naturalists, and her extraordinary journey to Suriname and the scientific discoveries that resulted. Specimens of actual insects, including the large Blue Morpho butterfly, will be included in the exhibition alongside Merian’s renderings — providing a rare opportunity for scholars, nature lovers, and families to experience European and exotic insects first hand.

This exhibition charts the artistic and scientific explorations of German artist Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. Enterprising and adventurous, these women raised the artistic standards of natural history illustration and helped transform the field of entomology, the study of insects. The exhibition presents books, prints, and watercolors by Merian and her contemporaries and features one of the greatest illustrated natural history books of all time, The Insects of Suriname.

From about 1450, European artists increasingly took inspiration from nature, studying the details of insects, animals, flowers, and plants. Maria Sibylla Merian enriched this tradition. Georg Flegel, had a lasting impact on still life painting in Frankfurt, Merian's native city. Flegel portrayed crawling insects, especially wasps and beetles, with convincing naturalism.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born into a middle-class family of publishers and artists. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, published some of the most influential natural history texts of the 1600s. Merian's stepfather, Jakob Marrel, had been trained by the artist and art dealer Georg Flegel. He introduced the young Merian to the art of miniature flower painting against her mother's will. Merian learned how to draw, mix paints, paint in watercolor, and make prints alongside Marrel's male pupils.

Merian's interest in insects was stimulated by the practice of silkworm breeding that was introduced by Frankfurt's silk trade. She began to observe caterpillars, moths, and butterflies, and by the age of 13 she had already observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm — a discovery that pre-dated published accounts by almost ten years.

Merian made a watercolor of a pomegranate plant emerging from the ground when she was not yet 20. She conveyed the passage of time by contrasting ripe fruit on the branches with overripe fruit on the ground.

Merian married her stepfather's favorite pupil, Johann Andreas Graff (German, 1636-1701), at the age of 18 and later moved with him to his native Nuremberg. There, she instructed the daughters of respected citizens in embroidery and painting.

Merian ingeniously combined her backgrounds in publishing and flower painting to produce The New Book of Flowers. Comprised of three volumes, each with 12 plates of engravings, this book of flowers, wreaths, nosegays, and bouquets served as a model book for artists, embroiderers on silk, and cabinetmakers. With this function in mind, Merian portrayed each flower in this plate distinctly, without overlap.

Merian's flower books were heavily used and often damaged, and surviving, intact copies such as the one on view in this exhibition are exceedingly rare.

While in Nuremberg, Merian wrote the first volume of her two-volume book Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers (or simply The Caterpillar Book). Merian depicted moths and butterflies in various stages of metamorphosis, the process by which they transform from egg to caterpillar to adult. Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars' food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian's work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.

By 1686 Merian had left her husband and moved with her two daughters and elderly mother to a religious community north of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. While living in this community, Merian pursued her research as a reflection of God's handiwork.

In 1691, after the financial collapse of the religious community, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, the center of world trade and the third largest city in Europe. Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria learned their mother's art. The three women set up a studio together, painting plants, birds, and insects and making works of art based on the most compelling images in The Caterpillar Book.

Merian's artistic and scientific interests outgrew Amsterdam's supply of exotic plants and animals. In 1699, after selling most of her belongings, she set sail for the Dutch colony of Suriname with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. Maria Sibylla was 52, Dorothea Maria 21.

The jungles of South America were teeming with live specimens, which Merian studied for her most important publication, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (known as The Insects of Suriname). Merian's experiences in the city of Paramaribo are expressed in her accounts of vibrant butterflies, voracious caterpillars and ants, exotic fruits and vegetables, menacing reptiles, and treacherous explorations into the jungle. Her observations about the local climate, the use of plants and animals, and the Dutch colonists' treatment of slaves provide some of the earliest accounts of life in Suriname.

In 1701, poor health and Suriname's hot and humid climate forced Merian to return to Amsterdam. Her daughter Dorothea Maria probably assisted in making preparatory watercolors for The Insects of Suriname, and an unidentified Amerindian woman who accompanied them home likely provided details about Surinamese plants and animals. The book, published in 1705, was sold in three different versions, including a deluxe version with hand-colored transfer prints that retained the vivid naturalism of Merian's preparatory watercolors.

Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717. Near the time of her death, her watercolors were purchased for Czar Peter the Great of Russia. Shortly thereafter, Dorothea published a third volume of The Caterpillar Book with 50 more of her mother's observations and an appendix on insects observed by Johanna Helena, who had moved to Suriname in 1711.

Around 1718 Dorothea moved to Saint Petersburg, where she continued to work as an artist. To ensure the circulation of her mother's work, she sold the plates of The Insects of Suriname to a Dutch publisher, who reissued the book in 1719 with 12 additional plates. Thanks to her daughters' continued diligence, Merian left a lasting mark on entomology.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647 into a family of artists and scholarly printers, Maria Sibylla was exposed to natural history publications at a young age. After her father’s death, her mother married the still-life painter Jacob Marrel, who trained her as a flower painter. At the age of 13, Merian painted the transformation of silkworms into moths. This was the beginning of her passionate, first hand observation of insect metamorphosis that eventually led to her groundbreaking discoveries — she was among the first to depict caterpillars, chrysalises, and butterflies in conjunction with the specific plants upon which they fed.

In 1665, she married, and later gave birth to two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. After moving to Nuremberg, Merian continued her work studying the life cycle of caterpillars in the gardens of wealthy citizens. Merian’s first publication, the New Book of Flowers (1675-80), a modelbook for embroidery and other handicrafts, conveys her ability to masterfully combine her background in publishing and flower painting. In her second publication, Caterpillars: their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers (1679-1683), Merian presented the various stages of different species’ development along with the plants they consumed.

In 1686, she moved to a pietistic religious community in Friesland (the Netherlands) with her mother and daughters, leaving behind her husband — whom she ultimately divorced in the 1690s. While living in Friesland, she resided in the home of the governor of the Dutch colony of Suriname, where she studied South American tropical specimens. After the financial collapse of the community in 1691, she moved to Amsterdam and her work attracted international attention of scholars and collectors. In 1699, Merian sold most of her belongings in order to travel to Suriname with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. They remained in Suriname for nearly two years — collecting specimens and making watercolors of the exotic animals and plants — before poor health forced her to return to the Netherlands. Upon returning, she sold specimens and spent nearly four years preparing the publication of her magnum opus The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (1705-1730).

Merian’s work left an indelible impact on the field of entomology. Her meticulous illustrations of caterpillars’ life cycles and feeding patterns accompanied by a concise text helped disprove the commonly held belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation of decaying matter such as old meat and rotten fruit. Her Suriname Book contains some of the most stupendous and colorful images of nature ever created.

The exhibition includes 80 objects, including 28 books and 52 framed watercolors, most of which are international loans. The exhibition gives an overview of natural history illustration by Merian’s predecessors in Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries — addressing natural history in relation to the then popular cabinet of curiosities and exploring notions of art competing with nature. Highlights from the Getty’s drawings collection of early depictions of flora and fauna, including watercolors by Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Hoffmann, Jan van Kessel, and Joris Hoefnagel, will be on view, as well an early work by Merian herself.

Still-life watercolors by Merian’s stepfather and teacher, Jacob Marrell, will be juxtaposed with Merian’s early work, including her New Book of Flowers. Various editions of Caterpillars, their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers (the Caterpillar Book) showcase Merian’s remarkable ability to carefully observe the metamorphosis of European caterpillars and meticulously render these transformations. Compared to her contemporaries who also studied metamorphosis, Merian is acclaimed for her unique inclusion of the caterpillars’ food source and her more ecological approach to their habit as a whole. Her artistic and entrepreneurial endeavors were continued by her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. After Merian’s death in 1717, Dorothea published a third volume of the Caterpillar Book, adding 50 more illustrations based on her mother’s discoveries. Johanna Helena’s watercolors reveal that she was expertly trained in her mother’s craft and developed her own career as a botanical illustrator.

The exhibition explores Merian’s life in Suriname and her depictions and firsthand accounts of large, vibrant butterflies, voracious caterpillars and ants, exotic fruits and vegetables, menacing crocodiles and snakes, and treacherous explorations into the tropical jungle. It will also encompass broader environmental and cultural observations about the fetid climate, the local uses of flora and fauna for food, shelter, and medicine, and the issue of slavery. In addition to her prized Studybook from St. Petersburg, in which she recorded observations on insect metamorphosis, many watercolors related to Merian‘s publication on Suriname will be on display as well as three different editions of her Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname.

An exciting aspect of the exhibition will be its interactive component, including a table in the gallery for drawing activities and touch screen monitors that will allow visitors to virtually “turn the pages” of some of the books on view. In addition, the exhibition’s Family Activity Guide invites parents and kids to discover caterpillars, beetles, and moths in Merian’s watercolors and books. Special public programs will accompany the exhibition, including gallery talks, an artist demonstration by the world famous botanical illustrator, Jenny Phillips, a lecture by Kim Todd, the author of the recent, acclaimed biography of Merian, garden tours highlighting the plants and flowers in the Getty’s Central Garden that relate to the exhibition, two Family Festivals, and Family Drawing Hour (an on-going program led by a professional gallery teacher, which gives families an opportunity to examine works of art in greater depth).

Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum Het Rembrandthuis, and was supported by the Netherlands Culture Fund of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The exhibition is curated by Dutch art historian Ella Reitsma and the Getty's presentation by Stephanie Schrader, assistant curator of drawings. The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color companion book co-published by the Rembrandthuis, Waanders Publishers, and the Getty, written by Ella Reitsma. In addition, the Getty has published a gift book (52 pages) that reproduces details of 22 plates from a second edition copy of the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, held by the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections. It is a vibrant encapsulation of Merian’s imagery and includes an afterword on Merian's life and work.

 

Maria Sibylla Merian, plate from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.