Maria Sybilla Merian
By her own choice, Maria Sibylla Merian left no record of her private life. Her name is not generally encountered in the United States outside the context of natural science, and there are understandably fewer of her published works and watercolors in public or private collections in this country than in Europe.
Although she was widely admired in the eighteenth century for her contributions to art, natural science, and exploration, she fell out of favor with certain nineteenth-century English natural scientists who openly scorned her methods and belittled her discoveries. It was the feminist movement nearly a century later that broadened Merian's appeal by exhibiting her paintings with those of other neglected female artists.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born into a prominent Frankfurt family of publishers and artists. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), a native of Basel, had learned his trade as an engraver and painter in Switzerland, France, and Germany. In 1617 he married Maria Magdalena, the daughter of Johann Theodor de Bry (1561-1623), a renowned artist, engraver, and printer, whose Frankfurt publishing house Merian inherited seven years later. Two of his sons eventually joined their father as draftsmen, painters, and engravers, expanding the business as conditions allowed. A trade fair catalogue of 1650 lists more than 130 titles published by Matthäus Merian, including significant works in the fields of history, theology, geography medicine, and natural history.
In 1646, a year after his first wife's death, Matthäus Merian married Johanna Sibylla Heim. Maria Sibylla, born a year later, would hardly remember her famous father, for he died when she was three. In 1651 her mother-married Jacob Marrel (1614-1681), a German still-life painter and art dealer who had been born in Frankenthal. As a thirteen-year-old he had served an apprenticeship in Frankfurt with the still-life painter Georg Flegel (1566-1638), before traveling to Antwerp and Utrecht to become a pupil of the flower painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/84). He returned to Frankfurt as a widower with three young children in 1651 and established a workshop there, taking on two apprentices for instruction in drawing, painting, and engraving. His marriage to Maria Sibylla's mother brought the four-year-old girl a friend and a teacher as well as a stepfather.
Johanna Sibylla Marrel had little understanding in matters of art and concentrated on teaching her only surviving child the expected female accomplishments of cooking, needlework, reading, and writing. However, an anecdote about Maria Sybilla's childhood gives an idea of her quiet resolution, as well as her desire to join the artistic circle around her. She began secretly to teach herself to draw and paint. One night she is said to have climbed the wall into a wealthy count's garden in search of live floral specimens. Unaware of their considerable value, she picked several of his tulips for her models. Soon afterwards she was obliged to confess her deed, but she is supposed to have so impressed the count with her finished artwork that he asked only for the painting as compensation.
Even if this story is not wholly factual, it is clear that at some early point, Maria Sibylla's talents came to be taken seriously. Her stepfather personally saw to her instruction in the fundamentals of composition and painting techniques. His own mastery of still life can be seen in the rich floral composition shown in Plate IV. At the time, drawing skills were developed by precise copying from natural history prints, and this exercise provided Maria Sibylla's first introduction to many famous botanical books, including works by the French court painter Nicolas Robert (1614-1685) and Theodor de Bry's Florilegium novum. By the age of eleven, Maria Sibylla could engrave a copperplate.
Between 1659 and 1665 Jacob Marrel spent months at a time away from Frankfurt in order to maintain his art business in Utrecht, but during these times Maria Sibylla continued her practical training, along with Marrel's apprentices Abraham Mignon (1640-1679) and Johann Andreas Graff (1636-1701), and she began to develop another interest. As she wrote nearly half a century later,
From my youth onwards I have been concerned with the study of insects, in which I began with silk-worms in my native city...then the far more beautiful butterflies and moths that developed from caterpillars other than silk-worms, which led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphosis.
Silkworm breeding had been practiced in Germany by Dutch and French Huguenot emigrants, who introduced it late in the sixteenth century, and Frankfurt became a leading European silk-trade center. Jacob Marrel's brother worked for a time as a silk embroiderer, so perhaps it was he who showed the young girl her first silkworm or gave her a specimen to take home, feed, and observe. Her mother must have been alarmed to see how the pet silkworm so mystified her daughter that she ran about collecting all kinds of caterpillars and other insects with the hope of witnessing what she would later call their "wonderful transformations," for at the time they were widely considered destructive and dirty.
Maria Sibylla gained additional insights into the world of insects from the printed sources available to her. She practiced copying motifs from Jacob Hoefaagel's Archetypa, an important source book used by many still-life artists, and she also became familiar with Historiae naturalis de insectis by Joannes Jonstonus (1603-1676), published by the Merians in 1653, with plates engraved by her stepbrothers.
In 1665 Maria Sibylla Merian married Graff, who had been her stepfather's apprentice between 1653 and 1658. Perhaps more a marriage of convenience than a romantic attachment, it at least offered the young bride the welcome prospect of working professionally with her spouse. After five years in Frankfurt, where a daughter Johanna Helena was born in 1668, the family moved to Nuremberg in 1670. Graff, however, had difficulty establishing himself as a publisher and engraver in his native city.
Perhaps to help their financial situation Merian prepared and sold her own ground paints and began giving painting and embroidery lessons to the daughters of Nuremberg's patrician families (fondly referring to her pupils as her Jungfern-Companie, or company of maidens). At the time, motifs for embroideries (which were often referred to as needle paintings) were drawn from books or sets of engravings published specially for embroiderers, goldsmiths, and glass painters. With her husband's help Maria Sibylla Merian published books of her own flower pictures, or Blumenbücher, in 1675 and 1677, each of which contained twelve plates. So successful were these fascicles that she published a third Blumenbuch in 1680, which contained the first two series plus twelve new plates of flowers, bouquets, and arrangements. Because they were handled rather like we use knitting patterns today very few pages or bound copies of the Blumenbücher survive.
During the same period Merian painted numerous floral subjects on parchment (see P1.III). Among the earliest are fifty watercolors listed in the oldest inventory of the Danish Royal Collection (1696), some of which can be seen in the turret of Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. Merian also assiduously pursued her scientific studies of the insect world, making forays into neighboring gardens (with permission!) to gather caterpillars, and some of her "maidens" willingly collected specimens for her as well. Over the course of five years, she systematically recorded caterpillars' behavior and drew each stage of their development. To verify her observations she often waited for a second metamorphosis to take place, a time-consuming business to be sure, for some of her Sommervögelein (or little summer birds, as butterflies were then called) took months to emerge from their chrysalis or pupa. Friends and amateur naturalists encouraged her to publish her observations, and in 1679 she and her husband produced Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (The wonderful transformation and singular plant nourishment of caterpillars).
This first Raupenbuch (caterpillar book) contained fifty engraved plates and commentary, all original work by Merian. She used her artistic gifts to the fullest in depicting the stages of the lepidopters life cycle (eggs, larva, pupa, and imago), unifying all events in one image. Not only was she the first woman to do this, but she was the first artist-naturalist of either sex to depict these changes on the insect's food plant. This was a truly revolutionary ecological view of nature for the time. By comparison, the Dutch artist Johannes Goedaert (1617-1668) had omitted the egg stage and depicted the other stages with little evidence of the host plant in his Metamorphosis naturalis, published between 1662 and 1669, suggesting that he still held to the belief that insects developed from decaying organic matter. Merian set herself further apart from other artist-authors in her ability to provide aesthetic pleasure while relating her findings.
The style of her compositions clearly owes much to the still-life traditions of her artistic upbringing, but she reversed the two main elements of the genre by subordinating the flowers to the insects. Whereas artists like her stepfather had used insects as metaphorical or emblematic devices (the beetle and butterfly in the painting in P1. IV are traditionally understood to signify good and evil), in Merian's works they were either the subject of the composition or they lent animation to her still lifes.
For the Raupenbuch plates Merian often borrowed plant motifs from her own watercolors and Blumenbücher just as still-life painters often used identical flowers in several of their works. For example, the tulip at the far left in the watercolor in Plate m served as the model for the tulip in Plate 2 of the first Raupenbuch. She sometimes used an ambitious printing technique known as counterproof, which produced a nonreversed printed image identical to the original artwork, but lighter. When delicately colored, the resulting print resembled the original watercolor.
Jacob Marrel died in 1681, and Merian and her children (another daughter Dorothea Maria had been born in 1678) returned to Frankfurt to help her mother, who had been left in distressed financial circumstances. Graff appears to have joined them periodically over the next two years until 1683, when the second Raupenbuch was published. However, his absences became increasingly frequent, and in the summer of 1685 Merian left Frankfurt with her mother and two daughters to join her widowed stepbrother, Caspar at a community in West Friesland, in the Netherlands. It had been established by Labadlists, followers of Jean de Labadie (1610-1674), a former Jesuit who had converted to Protestantism, and who called on his followers to abandon worldly ways and seek Christian regeneration within self-sufficient communities. Merian, although a believer, may have seen the group as a chance for a new beginning, for she knew full well that the Labadists considered marriage bonds dissolved unless both spouses converted.
The four women quickly settled into their new home. Merian reverted to using her maiden name and devoted her time to learning Latin and teaching her daughters to draw and paint. She also carried on her research (no one objected to her study of the Lord's handiwork in her free time), collecting caterpillars on the Frisian heaths and moors and making notes and drawings. More importantly, she recopied her Raupenbuch notes, systematically recording these details in a large volume known to posterity as the "Studienbuch." This working journal also contains life-sized insect studies she had painted on parchment or on small pieces of carta non nata, a costly white vellum made from the skin of unborn lambs.
Two years before Merian's arrival at the Labadist colony in West Friesland, missionary workers had been sent from there to a Labadist plantation in Surinam. Returning brethren gave grim accounts of their living conditions and other tribulations there, but Merian was enthralled by the exotic plants, brilliantly colored butterflies and animal specimens they brought back.
After 1688 communal life among the Labadists showed signs of deterioration, and in 1691, following her mother's death the previous year, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam. There Johanna Helena married a former Labadist who became a successful trader in Surinam. Maria Sibylla Merian made a living dealing in paints, giving lessons, and selling her watercolors. She also preserved specimens for sale locally and abroad. Dorothea Maria assisted her tireless mother in publishing and hand coloring the still popular Raupenbücher. All these activities drew Merian into a stimulating and influential circle of Dutch artists and natural history and botanical scientists, many of whom already knew her work. The director of the city's botanical garden became a lifelong friend, as did the mayor of Amsterdam. Soon she received private commissions to paint botanical rarities, seashells, and other natural specimens for distinguished collectors, whose fascination with the strange and exotic grew out of the vast Dutch trading networks of the East and West India Companies. Drawn more than ever to the magnificent beauty of Surinamese insects she found in various collections, Merian decided to undertake the long and expensive journey to study them firsthand.
In 1699, at the age of fifty-two, she embarked for Surinam with her daughter Dorothea Maria. They were forced to return two years later after Merian had a nearly fatal bout of malaria, but her dream had been fulfilled, and she brought home a wealth of recorded observations and specimens. Encouraged to publish her findings, she spared no expense in preparing the original paintings for a volume on Surinam. The first edition appeared (in Latin and Dutch) in 1705, containing sixty plates.
Maria Sibylla Merian continued to be productive until the end of her life. In 1713 and 1714 she published Dutch editions of the first two Raupenbücher, and she had completed fifty plates for a third caterpillar book at the time of her death in 1717. Her work won the acclaim and respect of natural scientists at home and abroad, and over the course of the next half-century several editions of both the Raupenbücher and the Surinam book were published Judging by their survival today, the demand was most keen for the editions in French (Histoire des insectes de I'Europe) and Dutch (De Europische Insecten) published in 1730 by Jean Frédéric Bernard of Amsterdam.
Merian's work influenced botanical illustration throughout the eighteenth century English artists such as Eleazar Albin (w.1713-1759), Benjamin Wilkes (w 1740- 1750), and Moses Harris (1731-c. 1785) and the German artists Johann August Rösel von Rosenhof (1705-1 759) and Georg Wolfgang Knorr (1705-1761) all freely copied from her Raupenbuch plates.
Botanical artists were not the only ones who borrowed from the Raupenbücher in the eighteenth century What has come to be called Merian decor appeared on both faience made at the Höchst and Strasbourg manufactories and on porcelain commissioned in the West and made in China (so-called Chine de commande).
Unfortunately "Merian decor" has often been used rather indiscriminately in describing objects with decoration featuring caterpillars, butterflies, and other insects. By examining ceramic examples with decoration that can be directly linked to Merian's work it is hoped that scholars and collectors will be inspired to look at other pieces with a more discerning eye. The porcelain plates in Plates VI and VII represent two large services made in China, one polychrome and one blue and white. Until now, the decoration has been connected to Merian's work only tentatively because the design as a whole does not match any one engraving. In fact, whoever devised the composition borrowed elements from four plates of part three of the Raupenbuch : the center flowers closely resemble ones in Plates 20 and 34; the butterfly resembles one in Plate 28; and the larger caterpillar (Cerura vinula) on the anemone has been taken from Plate 39, where it was depicted on a willow tree branch with its chrysalis. The caterpillar on the lower leaf has not been identified.
The faience tea canister in Plate IX features a May beetle on a branch of flowering sweet black cherry that is closely copied from Plate 4 of the first Raupenbuch. It was once thought to be a product of the Höchst factory near Frankfurt, but the fine painting is now attributed to Christian Wilhelm von Löwenfinck, a decorator at the Strasbourg factory between 1748 and 1753. Other examples of Strasbourg faience with Merian motifs are in the Musée des arts décoratifs in Strasbourg.
The faience platter in Plate I was made at the Höchst manufactory, about 1750. The oak branch with acorns on the right side corresponds to Plate 50 of the first Raupenbuch with the caterpillars and moth eliminated. The stag beetle is not from Merian's work; it was probably taken from Hoefnagel's much copied Archetypa. The platter held a tureen in the shape of a wild boar's head.
As these examples illustrate, eighteenth-century painters of ceramics clearly found inspiration in Merian's works. Although identification can be complicated by the fact that decorators sometimes combined elements from several of her illustrations, careful scrutinization of Merian's oeuvre will surely turn up additional examples.
CHARLOITE JACOB-HANSON is the founder of the Ceramics Circle of Frankfurt, a study group formed to promote a greater understanding of ceramics manufacture and related topics.