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22 November 2017

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Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist, Scientist, Adventurer

Jeyaraney Kathirithamby has co-authored a book with Sarah Pomeroy, Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist, Scientist, Adventurer (Getty Publications) which is about the trailblazing adventure of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). This is a story of ambition, peril and the persistence of an extraordinary woman who was not only a remarkable artist but an observant natural historian.

Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the first naturalists to make careful observations on plants, insects, spiders, butterflies, moths and amphibians, and was one of the first female scientific explorers. From the age of 13 Maria Sibylla Merian, when working with her stepfather, a still- life painter, became obsessed by insects that appeared in some of his paintings. Her curiosity led her to collect some of these insects and rear them. At that time little was known about the metamorphosis of insects and Maria Sibylla began taking detailed notes and making drawings of the life-cycle initially of the silk worm, and then of  numerous other European insects mainly of butterflies and moths, the plants they fed on, and, most interesting of all, their parasitoids. Such detailed observation by a young woman was not only unusual in the 17th century but extraordinary, since Maria Sibylla Merian developed these skills herself.

She published her first book, Neues Blumenbuch (New Book of Flowers) in 1675, and Der Raupen Wunderbare Verwandelung (usually referred to as the Caterpillar Book) in 1679. Maria Sibylla’s curiosity led her to move to Amsterdam, then an important trading centre, where she encountered exotic natural history objects and specimens brought from the East and West Indies. But as these were only preserved specimens, her curiosity about their life cycles made her take a bold decision: to set sail to Surinam in South America to collect live material. In 1699 this was not only a dangerous journey: field work in tropical Surinam was and still is no easy task. She stayed in Surinam for two years and recorded and drew its unusual plants and fruits, unknown in Europe at that time, such as the banana and pineapple, and she also drew the insects, reptiles and amphibians.

On her return to Amsterdam, she published a beautiful book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium in 1705. Her illustrations were not only delicate and brilliantly coloured, but her notes and drawings were also remarkable for their scientific detail and accuracy, considering that she worked with no sophisticated instruments, merely a paint brush and a magnifying glass. Czar Peter the Great purchased Maria Sibylla’s work in 1717, the year she died. Later, King George III acquired one of the first editions of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (which was hand-painted on vallum) for the Royal Collection. Interestingly, Sotheby’s sold a first edition of this book with Dutch text last week for £93, 750.00, stating that it was “one of the most important natural history books of the period”. The Bodleian Library has engravings the New Book of Flowers, Caterpillar Book and Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.

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