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A Botanical Study: Maria Sibylla Merian

Monarch migration is in full swing. The butterfly bush is a delightful sight with the monarchs and swallowtails fluttering all around it. The gardens host green spotted caterpillars gorging themselves on stocks of herbs and flowers. The greenhouse shelters chrysalises dangling by silk threads in the eves. All a signal that summer is in transition.  

In honor of this seasonal transition and in celebration of the launching of The Botanical Collection, I’d like to share with you a selection of 300 year old botanical illustrations by Maria Sibylla Merian, the woman who first documented the life-cycles of moths and butterflies.

Born in Germany, in 1647, Maria was raised in a large family of publishers, printers, botanical illustrators and painters. As a young child she spent much of her time collecting specimens for her father and brothers and eventually step-father and his apprentices. Over time she learned from each of these men how to print, draw, etch and paint. She received a formal early education in reading, writing and arithmetic, which was focused primarily on preparing young women for household management. 

1679 – 1683: Maria published three volumes dedicated to the study of “The Caterpillar’s Wondrous Metamorphosis and Particular Nourishment from Flowers …” The first of its kind in the study of the life histories of hundreds of insects. At this time the scientific community believed moths and butterflies were spontaneously spawned from mud and water. Her studies were the first to show the full life-cycle of an insect, as well as the host plants that nourished them along the way. 

At the age of 17, she married Johann Graff, a painter and a former apprentice to her step-father. They had two daughters. Along with her domestic duties she aided her husband in his work.

Though Maria was from the gilded class, she was well-liked and accepted by the aristocracy. Known as intelligent, talented and socially sophisticated, she maintained long-lasting mentorships with her aristocratic pupils. She was also accepted into the larger scientific community, members from which allowed her to study their personal collections, apothecaries, as well as help curate rare and highly desirable items for their curiosity cabinets.  

In her late forties, she joined the Labadist religious cult, along with her brother, mother, and her two daughters. She left her husband, who was refused entry by the cult, and who eventually granted her a divorce. During this time her work seems to have gone dormant, with the exception of honing her calligraphy skills. After two years living with the Labadists, her mother died of natural causes and her brother died from a disease that ravaged the community. Maria and her daughters left for Amsterdam. 

In contrast to the spartan cult environs, 17th century Amsterdam must have been a feast for the senses. The city was the center of world trade. The Dutch East India Company brought in spoils from around the world, and the New World in particular captured the imaginations of collectors. The bustling docks were loaded with crates of exotic animals, plants, and spices. The prosperous economy allowed artists of all mediums to flourish. Maria found work easily and settled comfortably in an apartment in the city.  However, discoveries from the New World beckoned and Maria was inspired to adventure.

In 1699, at the age of 52, she sold 255 of her paintings and bought two tickets to Surinam, one for herself and one for her twenty-one year old daughter. She learned about Surinam while living with the Labadists, who had a missionary post on the island. The plan was to spend the next five years on the island documenting insects. The goal was to have enough illustrations for a book. Unfortunately, after only two years, the hardships of living in Surinam had taken their toll. With complaints of the overbearing heat and a bout of malaria, the two ladies returned to Amsterdam. 

Maria returned with a trove of scientific artwork and crates of exotic plants and insects which would earn her further credibility among artists and collectors, and would sustain her career until the end of her life. In her elder years, and with the help of her now married daughters, she continued to make a living by selling her illustrations and rare items for connoisseur’s for their collections. She died in 1714 of natural causes. 

These illustrations capture what delights me most in an antique — a good story. Like the metamorphosis they represent they tell stories within stories, which continue to unfold and emerge in a new forms. They lead us vicariously through adventures from the past and inspire our adventures for the future. I hope you’ve enjoyed.

For further reading: Chrysalis, by Kim Todd, gives a remarkable account of the life and times of Maria Sibylla Merian.