The connection between the advancement of the science of botany and the painting of flowers is significantly important in understanding Maria Sibylla Merian's artwork. Her scientific study and illustrations of plants, animals, and insects are recognized as major contributions to the history of botany and entomology, but it is only recently that her exquisite illustrations have been reconsidered in the context of art history. For her flower illustrations Maria preferred to use watercolors applied to parchment, which brought out the natural and fresh qualities of her subjects. She engraved her copperplates herself, using a line-and-point technique as well as a crayon style. The sheets coming from the press were run through again with a second plate, producing transfer prints that were lighter and more delicate, and then hand-colored. Maria’s illustrations of flora and fauna not only demonstrate her mastery as a painter and engraver, but express a concern for botany uncommon in a woman of the late 17th century. In Amsterdam she was in close touch with scientists; this fearless scholar and artist, who paid scant heed to the conventions of her time, is also recognized as a founder of entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647.  She was the daughter of a Swiss engraver who published one of the first collections of flower illustrations in 1641. Although her father died when she was only three, his artwork proved to be a source of inspiration to her throughout her career. Maria's career as an artist was further strengthened when her mother remarried Jacob Marell, a well-known Flemish flower painter who strongly encouraged Maria's artistic talents.

In 1665 Maria married one of Jacob Marell's students, Johann Andreas Graff, with whom she had two daughters. The family moved to Nuremberg in 1670. In 1681 Maria’s stepfather died, and after separating from her husband she returned to her mother in Frankfurt. In 1685 she moved with her mother and daughters to Waltha in West Friesland, where she converted to Labadism, a religious sect that did not believe in formal marriage or worldly possessions, among other things. She then lived in Labadist settlements and finally settled in Amsterdam in 1690 where she studied various insect collections including that of Professor Frederik Ruysch, Rachel's father. It is interesting to note that although Rachel Ruysch and Maria had access to the same collections, their interpretations differ greatly. Ruysch is incredibly precise in her depictions of plants, animals, and insects but her compositions are artificial constructions. Maria's work is also very precise but it is much more natural and delicate and reflects her spirit of scientific knowledge.

"New Flower Book" was the title of Maria's first publication. It was a three-volume set of flower engravings, published between 1675 and 1680. Perhaps the reason this book of delicately hand-painted engravings of garden flowers is not as well known as her work on insects because it was intended to provide models for embroidery, and possibly even for paintings on silk and linen. Maria was a skilled needle worker and there is evidence showing that she had her own business selling hand-painted silks, which were made by the female apprentices that she employed. Only five copies of this book have survived, including a priceless first edition.

From an early age, Maria preferred to draw the plants and animals that she saw around her. Her desire to draw from observation of living forms rather than preserved specimens is illustrated by the fact that Maria collected, raised and observed living insects in preparation for a catalog of European moths, butterflies, and other insects. This catalog, The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and Their Singular Plant Nourishment, consisted of three volumes with the first being published in 1679.

In the book titled "Women in Art History", Wendy Slatkin says this about Maria's works:

"In this work, the development from larvae to caterpillar to moth of 186 varieties of European insects is illustrated. Each species is depicted with its preferred plant. Maria collected the insect eggs and studied the life cycle of each moth. This was the first time that scientific precision was brought to the investigation of the insect world. Prior to the publication of these volumes, there was no understanding of the life cycles of insects." This accomplished "thus revolutionized the sciences of zoology and botany and laid the foundations for the classification of plant and animal species made by Charles Linnaeus in the 18th century."

In 1690, after her mother’s death, Maria and her two daughters moved to Amsterdam, where she soon achieved success as a flower and animal painter. In 1699 she traveled with her younger daughter, Johanna Helena, to Suriname, located on the northern coast of South America. After having seen dried specimens of plants and animals from the area, she was determined to study them in their natural habitat. With the sponsorship she received from the Dutch government, she spent approximately two years collecting and painting flowers and insects adding comments about practical aspects of the plants as well as the customs of the natives she encountered. Eventually, after contracting malaria she was forced to return home in 1701. In 1705 Maria published the results of this trip in what became her most significant and beautifully illustrated book, "Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname" which was translated into many languages establishing her international reputation. Most of the copies of the book were hand-colored. This was the first scientific work to be produced on Suriname. Despite having a few biological errors, the illustrations were convincing, primarily in their rendering of the brilliance of the tropical colors. Apart from tranquil studies of nature, there are pictures showing its ferocity, such as the illustration depicting a spider eating a hummingbird.

Maria died in 1717. She left quite a remarkable legacy. Her primary focus was always that of expanding scientific knowledge but her elegant and refined aesthetic sensibilities elevated the level of botanical illustration to that of fine art. Like Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, Maria made important contributions to both art and science through her observations of nature rendered in beautifully composed and detailed illustrations. In 1997 the United States Postal Service recognized Maria's work by dedicating two new stamp designs based on drawings from her trip to Suriname.

An interactive display of many of her images that allow you to zoom in and see the intricate details of her illustrations can be found here:

You can view the two US Postage stamps here:

For More information on other lesser known female artists that you should read about, please check here


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.