Maria sibylla merian
and the flora and fauna of Suriname

For anyone who loves botanical and natural history illustrations and who might be running out of stay-at-home amusements, I highly recommend spending your days with the 2016 facsimile edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium by the German artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717). Published by Merian, in 1705, this work is a collection of watercolors that she painted in Amsterdam after returning from a two- year expedition to the Dutch colony of Suriname where she had observed, collected, and painted many of the country’s native insects, small animals and plants

Merian was trained as a painter, but her true passion was the study of insects. She was fortunate in having been born into a family of artists. Her father, Matthäus Merian, a Frankfurt printmaker who illustrated and published natural history books, died when Maria was three. His publishing house passed to his wife, Johanna Sibylla Heim, who soon married Jacob Marrel, a painter, art dealer, and engraver. Marrel trained Maria in drawing, painting, and engraving and introduced her to Dutch flower painting. She was tasked with raising caterpillars for the butterflies that Marrel used in his still life paintings, and over time she became increasingly interested in observing and recording the entire life cycle of the butterfly. Her study was certainly unique for the time.

Initially, Merian would arrange the stages of insect development in sequence, from eggs to adults, with no other subject matter on the page. As her artistry matured, she began to incorporate plants into her drawings with the eggs, larvae, and pupae perched on the leaves and branches and the adults flying overhead. Never before had an artist depicted the entire life cycle of insects in a natural habitat. Even the plants in her drawings exhibit their entire reproductive cycle, with buds, flowers and fruit. Her mastery of these ecological paintings can be seen in her monumental Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 62 brilliant watercolors that are overflowing with tropical life.

During her lifetime, Merian was highly respected for both her artistry and her contribution to entomology, yet a century later, she was seen merely as a flower painter and not a very good one at that. Her exceptional achievements in science and art weren’t recognized again until the latter part of the 20th century. Recent books and articles about Merian abound, and there is even the Maria Sibylla Merian Society, which, in 2017, organized an international symposium, “Changing the Nature of Art and Science. Intersections with Maria Sibylla Merian”.

The 2016 facsimile edition of Merian’s masterwork was published by Lannoo Publishers and the National Library of the Netherlands to commemorate the 300th anniversary of her death. The paintings were reproduced at full size from an original edition of Merian’s book held by the Library of the Netherlands, and the result is an enormous 21” folio volume. For this edition, a team of biologists re-examined the paintings to verify the names of the insects and plants, and Merian’s descriptions of each painting have been translated from Dutch and Latin into English. In addition to a biographical section, there are several heavily illustrated essays exploring various aspects of Merian’s life and work.

The superb facsimile version of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium can be purchased online at Amazon. Digital versions of Merian’s beautiful original, without English translation, can be downloaded at the Internet Archive and also from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. —Cindy Hartwell

This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.