Merian 1726, Pl. 41, Sweet Potato
Original Antique Print
21 5/8" x 14" (approximate)
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1726 Edition
Born in Frankfurt am Main, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647—1717) was the daughter of Matthaus Merian the Elder (1593—1650), a German-Swiss painter, engraver and publisher. Her father died when she was three and her mother remarried Jacob Marrel (1614—81), who had recently arrived in Frankfurt to open an art studio as a still-life painter. From the time she was eleven, Marrel schooled Maria Sibylla Merian in the tradition of northern European still life painting, working directly from life. As her interests evolved toward the study of insects, she employed these painterly skills to serve scientific objectives as well as aesthetic ones.
In 1665, she married a student of Marrel’s, the artist Johann Andreas Graff (1637—1701). During her marriage, two daughters were born and she continued to work as an artist, producing entomological studies and flower drawings that were in great demand as embroidery models. She began publishing her work, including a three-part flower book between 1675 and 1680. After her marriage dissolved, she moved in 1681 with her daughters and mother to a Labadist colony for a period before settling in Amsterdam in 1690. There she was introduced to a wider circle of people involved in natural history pursuits.
In June of 1699, at the age of 52, the artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian departed from Amsterdam, along with her daughter Dorothea Maria, on an arduous journey to the Dutch colony of Surinam on the northeastern coast of South America. There, she spent two years observing the indigenous plants and insects, studying and painting them from life. This endeavor resulted in one of the most significant natural history folios of the 18th century, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, the culmination of her career as an artist and naturalist.
Maria Sibylla Merian documented and studied the flora and fauna of Surinam, painting her exquisite studies on vellum with exactitude. These elegantly composed paintings portray the metamorphosis of one or more species of insect supported by a central plant food source and depicted its various stages of life: caterpillar or larva, pupa, moth, butterfly, or fly. In Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Maria Sibylla Merian merged the aesthetics and techniques of flower painting with the scientific study of insects, establishing her lasting reputation as an artist and scientist.
In 1705, two small editions were published, with 60 engraved plates, in Latin and Dutch. On the day Maria Sibylla Merian died, Tsar Peter the Great concluded a transaction to purchase a two-volume collection of unbound paintings, as well as her journal of studies, Studienbuch. In all, three editions of Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium were published. The latter two include 12 additional plates. Examples of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium in good condition with original color are extremely rare.
References: Wilfred Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration an Illustrated History, 1994, page 127; Natalie Zemos Davis, Women on the Margins, 1995, pages 140—202.
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