May 18, 2008

Maria Sibylla Merian

I have just returned from Amsterdam, where I saw so many incredible exhibitions and met so many wonderful people. I will be doing various posts from this trip, here is the first on Maria Sibylla Merian, whose work I saw at the Rembrandt House. This exhibition travels to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and is on view there from June 10 - August 31, 2008.

Maria Sibylla Merian (Frankfurt am Main 1647–1717 Amsterdam) was an exceptional woman who produced a no less exceptional oeuvre. Working in the Netherlands and Surinam, she was the most important and influential natural history artist of her age. Her greatness lies in the way she combined art at the highest level with innovative science. It was her years of scientific research and painstaking observations of insects, reptiles and plants that enabled her to make her meticulously detailed watercolours and prints. She was the first person to depict caterpillars, butterflies and moths at the different stages of their life cycles, together with the host plant on which they fed.

Merian’s adventurous life was as extraordinary as her work. As a child she was taught to draw by her stepfather, who had been a pupil of the famous Jan Davidsz. de Heem. As a newly-married woman she found fame with the publication of a three-volume work on flowers and two books on caterpillars. In 1685 Merian divorced her husband and took her two daughters to the Netherlands, where they joined a religious community in Friesland. Some five years later, when the community ran into financial difficulties, she moved to Amsterdam, where she and her daughters established a flourishing business. The firm of Merian & Daughters sold pigments, brushes, prepared insects and animals preserved in spirits to the countless collectors, dealers and printers who lived and worked in the city.

At the age of 53 Maria Sibylla travelled with her younger daughter to Surinam to study insects in the rain forest there. She returned to the Netherlands two years later—seriously ill but with hundreds of drawings and specimens of butterflies, moths, lizards, snakes and iguanas. They provided the basis for her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis, Ofte Verandering der Surinaamse Insecten which she published in Latin and Dutch in 1705. It brought her international fame. More than three hundred years later her scientific discoveries still stand, and her watercolours and gouaches have lost none of their power and astonishing beauty.

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