Just In Time For April Showers and May Flowers!


Spring has surely arrived and my back yard is starting to look like something right out of a Peter Rabbit book.  As far back as I can remember I’ve been a huge Beatrix Potter fan.  Cute little mice and bunnies? I’m there!  Now, thanks to google, I have discovered another artist inspired by nature and science to obsess over!  Her name is Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and I admit that I have not heard of her before although her artwork looks familiar.  She was a woman before her time in a myriad of ways and I give Google total props for bringing her name to so many though the infamous “Google doodle”.

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XX. Español: Metamorfosis de una mariposa (1706) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A female artist in her day was probably a rare thing but with encouragement from her stepfather, she developed her talent and found nature to be her muse.  She crafted meticulous works of the world around her—plants, animals, bugs, whatever she could find.  Not only did she capture artistic records of these living things, she sought to understand them and explain their life cycles.  Back in the 17th century, explanations for things such as butterflies and flies on meat were based on creative guesses and religious dogma.  People believed that flies came out of meat, a way of thinking known as spontaneous generation.  If you did not have a good explanation for something, you might as well just say that it just appeared out of midair.  Maria helped to squash these outdated and unscientific theories with her artwork.  She observed many different species though out all stages of their growth and documented their metamorphosis in her artwork.   This was a brilliant way to demonstrate with science with pictures and not pesky words!

A female artist in her day was undoubtedly an uncommon occurance but with encouragement from her stepfather, she developed her talent and found nature to be her muse. She crafted meticulous works of the world around her—plants, animals, bugs, whatever she could find. Not only did she capture artistic records of these living things, she sought to understand them and explain their life cycles. Back in the 17th century, explanations for things such as butterflies and flies on meat were based on creative guesses and religious dogma. People believed that flies came out of meat, a way of thinking known as spontaneous generation. If you did not have a good explanation for something, you might as well just say that it just appeared out of midair. Maria helped to squash these outdated and unscientific theories with her artwork. She observed many different species though out all stages of their growth and documented their metamorphosis in her artwork. This was a brilliant way to demonstrate with science with pictures and bring science to the masses.  I imagine that at a time when only some people (usually the wealthy) were able to read, these pictures would serve as a venue to explain the lifecycle of insects to anyone who admired her work.

Author, Margarita Engle, has written a lovely children’s book, Summer Birds, which details how Maria used scientific observation, patience and her artwork to explain how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. This was a new concept in her day when butterflies were referred to as “summer birds.” These colorful, fluttering, magical creatures appeared from nowhere and obviously, if something has no explanation it must be the work of the devil! Engle’s book shows how Maria learned that the devil was not to blame for this one, rather it was the work of the caterpillar. I haven’t purchased this book, but if I may judge it by its cover, it looks charming and something I may have to purchase to share with my nieces and nephew!

One of Maria’s most remarkable achievements was her trip to South America in 1685 as a sort of “entomological ambassador”. Maria and her daughter visited the Dutch colony of Suriname at a time when the idea of a mother/daughter trip from Amsterdam to the new world (alone without a male companion!?) was positively scandalous!  Coincidentally, my mom and I made the trip from the new world to Amsterdam but it was in a plane with nice little TV’s at each seat and not in a creepy, smelly, wooden ship (and we did not have a male companion either!).  I think it was great that Maria passed on her love of art and science to her daughters, just as her stepfather encouraged her talent as an artist.  During her two year stay, she discovered and drew representations of many native plants of South America and summed up her discoveries in her book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.  She also recorded the native names that were given to these organisms instead of focusing on Latin terminology that many scientists of the day followed.  This did not get her many points with the scientific establishment of the day but it does show how she was more focused on how regular people interacted with science every day.  After all, how often do we call bugs by their Latin names anyways?  Upon returning home to the Netherlands, she and her daughters continued their scientific artwork and became well respected artists of their day.

Maria’s artwork is quite beautiful and the level of detail is remarkable.  Studying insects and plants does require one to brush up on their drawing skills since so much of these fields require recoding detailed observations.  This would be a great field for someone with both strong artistic and scientific sides.  There are still plenty of insects to be discovered out there in the world and skilled artists like Maria are able to bring their elusive splendor to the masses.

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate LVI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)