I am happy to share a guest post this week—an article written by my mother-in-law Vreni Naess, originally featured in the Swiss publication “Dialog” in 1999. Vreni is from Bern, Switzerland, and has been living in Chicago since the late 1950s. She writes a regular column called “A Voice from Chicago.”
The following is one of my favorites of Vreni’s articles, describing the fascinating life of a talented 17th century artist.
I have included some images—courtesy of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—and added some active links.
Maria Sibylla Merian
by Vreni Naess
It all began with postage stamps. For a long time, the United States produced mostly dull stamps of little interest but eventually they joined other countries in celebrating events, objects, and people with interesting and often beautiful stamps. A while ago I noticed a particularly enchanting series of botanical prints done by a woman named Maria Sibylla Merian. I kept looking for them, using them with great pleasure, and wondering whether she might be a Swiss I had never heard about. Eventually, I looked her up in the library and here is some of what I found out about this most unusual and talented 17th century woman.
She was born in 1647 in the free imperial city of Frankfurt am Main, daughter of the artist and publisher Mathias Merian the Elder and his second wife Johanna Sibylla Heim. Mathias was a native of Basel (a Swiss connection after all) who had acquired the Bürgerrecht of Frankfurt and was known throughout Europe for his engravings of cities and landscapes, his scientific books, and his editions of the illustrated Grands Voyages (accounts of journeys to the new World). He died when Maria was only three but her mother’s second husband, Jacob Marrel, was also an engraver and painter, as were her half-brothers Mathias the Younger and Caspar Merian. She was thus born into a family of artists where her talent was recognized early and allowed to develop in spite of contemporary beliefs about the negative effects of the female temperament on genius. As a woman, however, she would not be allowed to paint representations of the nude body or large-scale historical works, nor would she be permitted to expand her skills by travelling to workshops in other towns.
When she was only six, her half-brothers did copperplates for a Natural History of Insects, and when she was thirteen, she began to study silkworms, and from there went on to observe “far more beautiful butterflies and moths that developed from other kinds of caterpillars. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphoses … and to work at my painter’s art so I could sketch them from life and represent them in lifelike colors.”
At eighteen she married Johann Andreas Graff, an engraver and painter in the Merian workshop, and eventually moved with him to Nürnberg where, starting in 1675, her husband published her first work, a Blumenbuch, over several years. In 1679 she showed the results of her longstanding observation of caterpillars in a book on Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung. There were 100 copperplates, fifty in each volume, and each plate depicted one or more insects painted from life, showing caterpillar or larva, pupa with or without cocoon, moth or butterfly in flight and/or rest, sometimes the egg stage as well. The plants were chosen for the leaves upon which the caterpillar fed and were identified by their German and Latin names. A page or two of Merian’s observations (in German) faced the picture. She did not give names to the moths and caterpillars (only a few of them had been named by that time) but she provided their life histories.
Some years later, after the death of Jacob Marrel, the Graffs returned to Frankfurt. There, against a background of family inheritance quarrels, Maria Sibylla converted from the Lutheran faith to the Labadian community, a Pietist movement which offered biblical study, charitable activity, and mystical fellowship, then left her husband and, with her mother and two daughters, joined the center of the community in Wieuwerd, Friesland. The community believed in a simple and fully shared life with love and repentance as guiding principles, repentance meaning absolute detachment from worldly things such as pride, finery, and property. Although she complied with the rules, she did continue her studies of insects and kept a careful “study book” of her work. It is believed that after some time she realized her work could not be printed under the rules of the Labadists, nor could she continue her contacts with the outside world, so she changed her mind (after five or six years) and left for “wicked” Amsterdam. A large and prosperous city of about 200,000, Amsterdam offered many opportunities to a single woman with exceptional skills, connections, and two talented daughters. She was welcomed in the circles of naturalists, collectors, and engravers, and was hired as one of the painters doing watercolors of the plants in the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens.
In collectors’ “cabinets of curiosities” she saw insect specimens from the West and East Indies, was fascinated by them but felt that something important was lacking, namely the origins and later transformations of the insects. “So I was moved,” she said, “to take a long and costly journey to Surinam.” In April 1699, fifty-two years old and having made her will, she set out on this most unusual journey in the company of her daughter Dorothea, then twenty-one. She had sold a large collection of her prints of flowers, fruits, and insects to finance the trip and hoped to get money on her return by selling insect specimens she intended to collect. She chose Surinam because it was somewhat known to her through the Labadists who ran the (in the end unsuccessful) Providence Plantation there and also because it contained a sizable Dutch settlement. Maria Sibylla and Dorothea settled in Paraibo where in October 1699 she painted and recorded her first “metamorphosis.” She had connections to some of the important Dutch families, had several slaves (whom she called myne Slaven and with whom she communicated in Neger-Engels). She threw herself into the work of discovering, breeding, and recording butterflies, moths, and beetles, first in her own garden, then in nearby forests, then on plantations along the Surinam river, always accompanied and assisted by her African and American Native slaves. After about two years, she could not bear the heat any longer and departed for Amsterdam, loaded with rolled vellum paintings, brandied butterflies, bottles with crocodiles and snakes, lizards’ eggs, bulbs, and many round boxes full of pressed insects for sale. She also took along her Indianin.
Four years later, the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam appeared in Amsterdam, in Dutch and in Latin, a folio edition of sixty copperplates, available in black and white, or hand-colored by Merian. Again, she used her characteristic way of showing nature’s process and relationships, the origin and transformation of insects, and the food on which their larvae lived. She continued not to categorize her paintings by any system then in use but expected each picture, with the accompanying text, to stand on its own. In contrast to most of her contemporaries, she acknowledged help from her Surinam servants.
With the Metamorphoses book, Merian had fully established her reputation as a major artist-naturalist. She was now one of the international figures of Amsterdam, a person one had to meet. When Peter the Great visited the town, his physician came by the house and bought some of her paintings for the czar. She died in 1717, sixty-eight years old.
And all this I learnt (and you read) because of a lovely set of US postage stamps.