Maria Merian and Daniel Rabel Surinam
Books & Manuscripts

Maria Merian's Botanical Odyssey

By Cecilie Gasseholm
Ahead of Maria Merian's Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe being offered for sale in the upcoming Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale on 12 November, Cecilie Gasseholm introduces us to her life and work. 

M aria Merian was a pioneer. Not only in the field of scientific discovery, but also in her approach to a woman's role in society. Merian took determined charge of her own career and legacy through her extensive travels through South America.

MARIA SIBYLLA MERIA ETCHING
JACOBUS HOUBRAKEN, MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN, CIRCA 1700. ETCHING AFTER A PORTRAIT BY HER SON GEORG GSELL. 

Uninhibited by the prospect of dangerous travel as a single woman, accompanied only by her daughter, she set about documenting the natural world in her beautifully detailed illustrations, many of which recorded species of plants and animals unfamiliar to the European scientific community of the time.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was the daughter of the well-known Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian. On her father's early death, her Dutch mother married the flower painter Jacob Marrell. It was one of his pupils, Johann Graff of Nuremberg, who first taught Maria to paint, and later they married.

During Merian's lifetime it was not allowed for women in the Netherlands to paint with oils, so she became a prolific watercolourist. She was primarily interested in entomology, and her first book, on the insects of Europe, with fine coloured plates of insects and flowers, was published in 1679.

Maria Merian and Daniel Rabel, Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam
Maria Merian and Daniel Rabel, Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe, 1771, 3 volumes. Estimate £60,000–80,000.

Some years later she was shown a collection of tropical insects which had been brought back from Suriname. This inspired her, and together with her daughter Dorothea, she embarked on a remarkably enterprising journey to South America, arriving in September 1699. At this point Merian was no longer married to Johann Andreas Graff. Merian and her daughter stayed for nearly two years studying and recording the plants and insects, the results of their labours being the magnificent Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium.

She took a great interest in the metamorphosis and life cycles of insects, something that was largely unknown at that time. She also understood that there was a correlation between species and the particular plants for feeding – a connection she showed in her artwork. Unfortunately Merian fell ill with Malaria and had to return to Amsterdam. 

Maria Merian and Daniel Rabel Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam
Maria Merian and Daniel Rabel, Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l'Europe, 1771, 3 volumes. Estimate £60,000–80,000.

In the introduction to Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium Merian makes this hopeful comment: "I have not been selfish, when I have returned back to me to costs made, I have spared no cost in the making of this publication, but I’ve had the plates cut by the mentioned masters, and chose the best paper, so that the knowers of art as well as the lovers of insects and plants can take pleasure in my work..." 

Merian died a pauper, but has posthumously been given some of the attention she deserves, both as ground-breaking entomologist and talented artist. 

This rare combined edition gathers Merian’s two major works, Des Plantes de Surinam and Des Plantes de l'Europe, together with Rabel’s Des Plantes Bulbeuse, Liliacées, Caryophyllées, being the depictions of the most spectacular flowering plants of the 17th century.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos & news.
Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's

Close