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Books & Manuscripts

Maria Merian's Botanical Odyssey

Maria 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. Uninhibited by the prospect of dangerous travel as a single woman with her young child in tow, 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. Ahead of herMetamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium being offered for sale in the upcoming Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale, Cecilie Gasseholm introduces us to her life and work. 

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

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.

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. 


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MARIA MERIAN, PINEAPPLE WITH COCKROACHES, 1705. ESTIMATE: 80,000—120,000. 

1.  An engraving showing a Pineapple (Ananas comosus) with Cockroaches (Periplaneta australasiae and Blattella germanica). Pineapples were found bountifully in Suriname, while they still had news value in Europe. This image shows how skilled Merian was at combining flora and fauna whilst also depicting the insect at strict life size. 

 

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MARIA MERIAN, BRANCH OF WEST INDIAN CHERRY WITH ACHILLES MORPHO BUTTERFLY, 1705. ESTIMATE: 80,000—120,000. 

2.  An engraving showing the Achilles Morpho Butterfly (Morpho achilles). Merian shows the lifecycles of the butterfly in a very poetic manner – not without a sense of showmanship.

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MARIA MERIAN, WATER HYACINTH WITH MARBLED OR VEINED TREE-FROGS AND GIANT WATER-BUGS, 1705. ESTIMATE: 80,000—120,000. 

3.  An engraving showing a Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), the Giant Water Bug (Lethocerus grandis) and the Veined Tree Frog (Phrynohyas venulosa). The Giant Water Bug can grow up to 11cm. in length, making it one of the largest insects in the world. The Water Hyacinth has the ability to float, due to air in the stems. 

 

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 post-humously been given some of the attention she deserves, both as ground-breaking entomologist and talented artist. 

 

CLICK HERE to view the full catalogue. 

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