She had everything required to be simply one of the great painters of her time, but her passion for nature (and insects) led her to combine art with science and be recognized as a naturalist, explorer and one of the pioneers of modern entomology. With her drawings of insects and plants, Maria Sibylla Merian opened up a new field in science in an unusual way, breaking the scientific moulds of the time.
The daughter of a well-known artist and engraver, Maria Sibylla Merian (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) learned drawing techniques from her father, with which she painted flowers, fruits, birds and something unusual in those times, insects (considered by the Church to be the “spawn of the devil”). At age 13, she took up a hobby that she would pursue until the end of her life: collecting and raising caterpillars to observe their transformation into moths and butterflies. She noted the details in her notebooks, sticking strictly to recording what she witnessed through the raising of these insects. “The only reliable approach to the study of natural phenomena is through observation,” she wrote.
The young Merian recorded with her brushes every stage of the life cycle of these animals, from the eggs to the adult form. Until then, few people had been concerned with investigating insects and her work served to disprove the belief that they arose from the mud by spontaneous generation—a theory that had been described by Aristotle.
Animals, plants and insects together for the first time
After two decades of observation, Merian published in 1679 her first book, Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The wonderful transformation of caterpillars), considered the first complete description of the life cycle of some insects, and also their ecological relationships. Instead of representing specimens on a flat background, she showed their relationships with other animals and plants, going against the grain of the great scientists of her time, who limited themselves to classifying them into separate categories. It was the first time that animals, plants and insects were portrayed together.
Merian was also a pioneer in emancipating herself from the social ties that restricted the freedom and curiosity of women. She divorced in 1685 to go with her daughters to a pietist commune in Amsterdam. And at a time when most female naturalists stayed at home classifying plants and animals in their locality (or those that they received from abroad), she undertook a trip to a semi-unknown tropical country. In 1699, at the age of 52, she travelled to Surinam, the former Dutch Guiana, to collect and cultivate specimens of exotic flora and fauna.
She returned to Europe after two years and gathered the results of her research into her masterpiece: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), published in 1705. This work revealed unknown plants and animals in the Old Continent and established her as the first empirical entomologist, who travelled to observe and describe insects in their own habitat. In sixty illustrations she detailed the life cycle of caterpillars, worms, moths, butterflies, beetles, bees and flies. In addition to its undeniable scientific value, the publication was highly praised for its artistic value.
A reference for Linnaeus
The precision of that work impressed Linnaeus, father of the modern botanical and zoological nomenclature, who based several texts of his famous Systema Naturae on Merian’s observations, in which he enumerates, describes and names the 4,400 species of animals.
But perhaps the most important contribution of Maria Sibylla Merian to entomology was the new discoveries. Nine species of butterflies and two of beetles, in addition to six plants, were christened with her name. Her work was so rich, careful and innovative that for a long time she was a fundamental reference in that field of study. After her death in 1717, her name fell into oblivion until she was rediscovered as a scientific figure in the twentieth century.
Her love for art and nature can be summed up in one of her phrases: “Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line, that which is conquered, conquers at the same time.”