Maria Sibylla Merian -- Artist, Scientist, and Adventurer


Every year in March, the International Antiquarian Book Fair comes to the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, with over 200 American and international dealers of rare and first edition books, maps, manuscripts, illustrations, photography, autographs, Americana, and ephemera. A few years ago, I became acquainted with the illustrations of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Trained as an artist by her stepfather in Nuremberg, Germany, she was fascinated by butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). Her study of insect metamorphosis began years before other scientists had published accurate descriptions of the process. In 1691, Merian moved to Amsterdam where she became interested in the wildlife of Suriname. Eight years later, with financial assistance from the city, she embarked with her daughter Dorothea on a two-year (1699-1701), perilous expedition to the rain forests of this Dutch colony to study insects in their natural habitat. She was one of the first naturalists to observe insects empirically. Collecting insect specimens and recording their eating habits and changes, she drew meticulous images of their life cycle, depicting the insects accurately on host plants while often showing the full cycle of metamorphosis. Upon her return to Amsterdam, her body of work was published as the "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium" ("The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname"). Merian’s illustrations were scientifically rigorous and beautifully executed. Years after her death, they were used by scientists, including Carl Linnaeus, to classify species; and many natural historians as well as botanical artists adopted her approach to scientific illustration. My favorite illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian is, of course, her depiction of the cacao tree with its rough-edged pods, long green leaves, and tiny pink flowers. She produced several different studies of the plant, often including insects playing on the leaves. Two of Merian’s prints were at this year’s New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. I also found another illustration of the cacao tree, very similar to Merian’s work, which was in the botanical study "Le Jardin d'Eden" (1783) by the French naturalist Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz. The Merian prints were valued at 1,250 Euros apiece at Antiquariat Reinhold Berg (Regensburg, Germany), while the Buc’hoz multi-volume collection was priced at $118,000 at Antiquariaat Schierenberg (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), thus untouchable for a chocolate aficionado. Of the two illustrations below, one (1702-03) was drawn by Maria Sibylla Merian, the other (ca. 1885) by P. Depannemaeker, after an image by the Dutch botanical artist Berthe Hoola van Nooten. Can you tell which one is the Merian print?

A fruiting branch of the cacao tree

(chromolithography)

A cacao tree with butterflies

(hand-colored copperplate engraving)

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