Since the days of Aristotle it had been assumed for a long time that caterpillars and butterflies were made up of dirt and mud. As a result, the little creatures were hardly valued. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) thought otherwise. She was fascinated by the remarkable lives of these animals and their miraculous metamorphoses. In 1705 this fascination culminated in the wonderful book about the shapes and metamorphoses of tropical insects in Surinam: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
Maria Sibylla Merian was the daughter of Matthaus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), a German-Swiss painter, engraver and publisher who lived in Frankfurt. She was three years old when he died. Maria’s mother remarried the artist Jacob Marrel (1614-1681) who had moved from Utrecht to Frankfurt one year earlier to start an art shop and studio. He concentrated on still-life flowers and fruits, which were becoming increasingly popular at the time.
At her stepfather’s insistence Maria received a thorough education in drawing and painting from the time she was eleven. Her preferred subjects were flowers and insects. She discovered that butterflies came from caterpillars via a metamorphosis to a pupa or silk cocoon, and that every type of caterpillar has a diet based on a certain plant. She made drawings that depicted caterpillars and their species-specific food plant, their own cocoon or pupa and the emerging butterfly. She conducted systematic research in this field from 1675 onwards.
Two daughters were born from her marriage in 1665 to the artist Johann Andreas Graff (1636-1701). The family lived in Nuremberg, where Maria devoted a great deal of her time to drawing and painting and continued her entomological studies. Using dyes she made from plants, she succeeded in obtaining waterproof paints that she used to decorate cloths. The decorations she painted did not discolor and penetrated through the cloth, creating an equally clear illustration on both sides.
Maria’s flower drawings were in great demand as models for embroidery. Her stepfather, who in the meantime had returned to Utrecht, sold her work in his Utrecht based art shop. That is how she became well known in the Netherlands in that period.
Between 1675 and 1680, her three-part flower book was published in Nuremberg, followed in 1679 by the first part of her work on European caterpillar diet and metamorphosis. The two later parts were published in 1683 in Frankfurt and, posthumously, in 1717 in Amsterdam. Probably in 1685, after the disintegration of her marriage, she moved with her mother and daughters into the Labadist colony, a religious community, in the Frisian village of Wiuwert, where Anna Maria van Schurman, the famous theologian and linguist, had lived shortly before. In 1690, Maria established herself in Amsterdam, where she came into contact with the mayor, Nicolaas Witsen, and other dignitaries who showed her their much-loved ‘cabinets of curiosities’
From 1699 to 1701, she undertook a study trip with her youngest daughter to Surinam. From Parmubo, the present-day Paramaribo, she travelled along the Surinam River to the former plantations of the Labadists. Using these plantations as an operating base, she took every opportunity to make trips and study indigenous insects in the jungle, along river banks and in swamps and pampas. Back in Amsterdam, she elaborated her drawings and notes into the Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, first published in 1705. Besides illustrations of butterflies and caterpillars, this book also contains illustrations of ants, spiders, amphibians and reptiles.
Of the 60 beautiful illustrations, she engraved three illustrations herself while the others were produced by Jozef Mulder, Pieter Sluyter and Daniel Stoopendael. She herself coloured the illustrations, assisted by her two daughters. She received assistance in naming the plants from the botanist Caspar Commelin, manager of the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens. She wrote the zoological descriptions, probably checking her findings against publications of her contemporaries, the zoologist Jan Swammerdam, who specialised in insects, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope and the first ‘microbiologist’. Finally, she bore the considerable financial risk of the publication, of which about 60 copies were printed in Dutch and Latin. Gerard Valck, mentioned in the imprint as the publisher, acted as her agent.
In 1719, Johannes van Oosterwyk published a second edition with 72 illustrations, in both Latin and Dutch. Many editions, also in other languages, were to follow. There are also copies and separate plates with the illustrations in mirror image. Maria produced them by pressing the still wet impression of the original copper engraving against a clean sheet of paper, so as to create a ‘counterproof’ in mirror image. They normally do not have the ‘dent’ or plate mark left by the copperplate in the paper and the lines are softer. In case of a counterproof the printer had to ensure that any text or numbering on the copperplate was obscured, as it would otherwise end up as a mirror image. Sometimes this went wrong, as can be seen on the images 42 and 49 in this digitized copy. Here the names of the engravers indeed appear as a mirror image! The Utrecht copy namely represents such a rare counterproof, for which a customer had to pay more. Only image 18, with the ants and bird spiders, is from a 'normal' copper engraving. The strange thing, however, concerns the images 3-12, 14, and 37, having a plate mark in the paper. Perhaps during the printing process use was made of a metal plate to increase the pressure?
In her books Maria always depicted the caterpillar and its matching butterfly, together with the plant they thrived on. With respect to the identification of European butterflies her work is faultless. Unfortunately the Metamorphosis shows quite a few mistakes and not every butterfly matches the right caterpillar. Possibly the research samples got mixed up during the return journey from Surinam. Also we have to take into account that Maria returned ill from the tropics.
With her botanical books Maria made an important contribution to the entomology. Also thanks to her work the idea of spontaneous generation was gradually left: caterpillars do not come from dead material at all. This was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt by Maria’s accurate descriptions of the lives of the insects. Apart from her scholarly merits she lives on in other ways. Her portrait used to adorn the German 500 mark banknote. And in the Netherlands a butterfly is named after her, the meriansborstel (Calliteara pudibunda), coming from a beautiful and very pilose caterpillar. And because of plate XVIII of the Metamorphosis depicting some spiders, Maria may be responsible for the name ‘bird spider’. Among other things, the illustration shows a big spider that has caught a small bird. In the accompanying text, the ‘Colobritges’ are mentioned, referring to hummingbirds. The hapless hummingbird in the illustration underwent an involuntary metamorphosis in the end…