Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) drew and studied insects at length during her youth in Germany. Inspired by the number and variety of tropical species being brought back by the Dutch, she decided to visit the colony of Surinam to study and record its indigenous insect life. In her introduction to the Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium, she wrote that her real interest was in the “origins and development” of insects. She sailed with her daughter Dorothea from Amsterdam to Surinam in 1699, and remained there until 1701.

Merian’s work offers an insight into the exotic insect life of tropical South America, with lizards and snakes, colorful butterflies flying around flowering or fruiting plants, and huge caterpillars moving across leaves. Some plates depict more than one species, as Merian observed that a plant was not the exclusive domain of only one. She successfully provided on a large format a glimpse into the natural world that she experienced in Surinam.

Naturalists purchased the Surinam book because Merian’s paintings included a number of plants and insects that had not previously been seen or described in Europe. This book was groundbreaking in many ways and had an enormous impact on European perception of the tropical New World, the life cycles of insects, and the manner in which plant and animal subjects could be illustrated to indicate their natural context.

 
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