In June of 1699, a 52-year-old Maria Sibylla Merian departed on a cargo ship for South America’s Suriname with only her 22-year-old daughter Dorothea Maria for company. It was a hundred years ahead of Alexander von Humboldt‘s more famed travels, and not an era in which many German women worked outside the home, let alone took solo natural history expeditions. Merian was interested in one thing: butterflies. Not just their beauty, but their whole life cycle, from caterpillar to chrysalis to winged insect.
A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald, out now from Prestel, is a compact biography on Merian’s natural history contributions, accompanied by her meticulous and colorful illustrations. Unlike many of her predecessors, she didn’t depict the caterpillars and butterflies separately. Instead, each was a scene of life, with the foraging plant alongside the butterfly in its different life stages.
Butterflies might seem like an innocuous research subject for a woman, although in the 17th century universities were still exclusively male. However, aside from the silkworm (Merian’s first focus) which was revered for its contributions to luxury cloth, the butterflies and creeping caterpillars were seen as lowly beings, or worse, demonic. “For some people, these creatures were the work of the Devil, and those who interested in them were surely up to no good — why, they might even be witches, who must be put to death,” Friedewald writes in A Butterfly Journey. He notes that according “to popular belief, witches possessed the power to change themselves into butterflies in order to curdle cream and butter.” Thus the name “buttervögel” in German and “butterfly” in English.
Friedewald doesn’t go too in-depth into the trials of working as a woman in science in the 17th century, or her influence on women naturalists who followed. However, the book does show how she personally progressed from a young girl curious about the natural world, to one of the first researchers to examine butterflies in such detail. At the time, spontaneous generation was still considered by many to be the butterfly’s mode of reproduction.
Merian was very much driven by her faith. In her 1679 Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformations and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers, published in German so it could be read by everyone (Latin was the dominant academic language), she affirmed her Christian mission alongside the natural history descriptions. Friedewald writes:
For Maria Sibylla […] the ‘caterpillar book’ is not a medium for showing off her artistic skills and scientific knowledge at a time when a woman’s most important duties were those related to running the household. In fact, she saw her work solely as a song of praise for the Creator. In her preface she confesses: “Do not seek herein my glory / but that of God / to praise / Him / as Creator of even these small and most humble worms; / for they spring not from themselves / but from God.”
He adds that to Merian “the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which emerges from a lifeless hull and joyfully flies heavenward, is a hope-giving symbol for the resurrection of the soul from the dead physical shell of the Christian’s body.” Yet by the time she published the 1705 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensum on her research in Suriname, where long-haired caterpillars in the rainforest sometimes swelled her hands up with poison for days and she had to cultivate exotic plants herself to keep caterpillars alive through their life-cycles, there’s no mention of God. Rather, she starts by confidently describing her own life and personal journey, concluding that she has “kept simply to my observations.”
Despite her long career, her influence on contemporary natural knowledge, her vivid descriptions of distant Suriname, and her intrepid spirit, when she died in 1717 the city of Amsterdam’s register of deaths described her simply as a woman “without means.”
A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sibylla Merian. Artist and Scientist by Boris Friedewald is out now from Prestel.
A number of Maria Sibylla Merian’s works, including some butterflies, are on view as part of the exhibition Super Natural at the National Museum of Women in the Arts http://nmwa.org/exhibitions/super-natural
Quite a woman.
amazing woman, beautiful art.
Why does it have to say a ‘woman’ artist… surely ‘artist’ would be sufficient. How about a few more artists (who happen to be women) being featured on Hyperallergic? I’m about ready to stop following… too much gender bias.
I didn’t write the title, and I would generally agree it doesn’t need to be in a title, however I would say that in this instance the fact she was a woman in the 17th century (when, according to the book, even the type of art you could do as a woman was restricted, like no oil paintings of history) is significant to the story of Maria Sibylla Merian.
I wish we knew more about the women at that time, so much has been lost. Aphra Behn (playwright) is a good example… Who has given history paintings their prominence? I think the incredible tapestries, illuminations and flower paintings were just as skilled and deserving of praise. It does not matter that there were less women doing them.
You clearly don’t read us.
Well I only read the articles about women as that’s what I’m interested in. I’d say only one in four or five articles? I’m only reading the posts that come to facebook…are there others?
Yes, the newsletter is probably a better way to stay up-to-date because Facebook only shows you what it wants as a result of it’s mysterious algorithm. You can subscribe at http://hyperallergic-launch.newspackstaging.com/newsletter
Her story is the stuff of legends, one of the greatest naturalists of all time and an artist of stunning talent. This looks like a very small volume, for those interested in a very well reproduced larger book I recommend Maria Sibylla MERIAN by Hatje Kantz.
Thanks for this column. Intriguing.
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