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Swallow-Tailed Butterfly and Passion Fruit: Maria Sibylla Merian 1719

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  • Author: Maria Sibylla Merian
  • Date: 1719
  • Medium: Hand-colored copperplate engraving
  • Condition: Very Good
  • Inches: 13 x 17 [Image]
  • Centimeters: 33 x 43 [Image]
  • Product ID: 232404

A pioneering entomologist and the first naturalist to record the process of metamorphosis, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) documented the life cycles of close to 200 insect species over the course of her lifetime. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Merian grew up in an environment that encouraged her creative inclinations; her father Matthäus Merian (1593-1650) owned a Frankfurt publishing house and was himself a respected illustrator. Following his death in 1650, Merian’s mother Johanna married Jacob Marrel (1614-1681), an Utrecht-trained artist known for his floral still life paintings. Merian learned from Marrel as a child, helping her stepfather by collecting insects and natural specimens for him to paint. This childhood fascination with live specimens would persist throughout her career, and Merian often raised insects in order to observe them for her compositions. 

In 1665, Merian married Nuremberg-born Johann Andreas Graff, a pupil of Marrel’s, and moved with him to his hometown. During her marriage to Graff, Merian painted and published several illustrated volumes depicting caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and popular flowers, earning recognition for her work’s fastidious scientific accuracy and attention to detail. However, in 1685 Merian left her husband (whom she would divorce in 1692) and moved with her mother and two daughters to the province of West Friesland in the Dutch Republic. In 1693, Merian traveled to Dutch-colonized Suriname in South America accompanied by her younger daughter in order to study native Surinamese flora and fauna; the two made a remarkable traveling party due to their lack of a male companion. Merian remained in Suriname for the next two years until a case of malaria required her to return home. Nevertheless, her time abroad proved pivotal to her career; in 1705, Merian published Insects of Surinam, an elaborately illustrated volume that cemented her reputation as a naturalist of international renown.

To add another facet to Merian’s fascinating legacy, her two daughters both became artists in their own right. In 1717, the year of Merian’s death, a collection of her paintings were purchased on behalf of Tsar Peter I of Russia, who subsequently summoned Merian’s younger daughter Dorothea Maria to St. Petersburg. Dorothea lived in St. Petersburg for the rest of her life, working as a scientific illustrator while her husband served as a court painter. She was the first woman employed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her older sister, Johanna Helena, moved to Suriname in 1711 with her husband and continued the work her mother had begun documenting the Surinamese natural world.