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Visionary Pursuits

Dear Friends:
Recently a colleague gave me a very interesting little book about Maria Sybilla Merian entitled, Search for Sibylla – The 17th Century’s Woman of Today by Patricia Kleps-Hok.  I found this story about one of the pioneers in botanical art to be filled with interesting little tangental stories the surround the life of this very special scientist artist.  Below is an edited version that focuses mostly on Maria’s life.  I hope you will find time to read the full version and find it as interesting as I did.  God bless. OM


Maria Sibylla Merian was born on April 2, 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, into the family of Swiss engraver and publisher Matthaus Merian, the Elder. Her father died three years later and in 1651 her mother married still life painter Jacob Marrel.  Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. As a small child she began collecting and studying insects. She learned that to simply raise her own moths and butterflies, made them easier to paint.  This early training was the beginning of a scientifc journey where one woman’s discovery changed the scientific world.  Her journals and drawings depicting insect metamorphosis, in which all life stages of the inset (egg, larva, pupa, and adult)  describe the life cycle of 186 insect species. Her work places her among one of the first naturalists to have observed insects directly. This approach gave her much more insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time.

In 1665 Maria Sibylla Merian married her stepfather, Marrell’s,  apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff – an architectural  and portrait painter.   Their financial difficulties forced Sibylla to find ways to earn money. She worked as a botanical artist.  She also did crocheting for clients, taught art to students, created her own little art supply store that sold among other things her prized recipes for her paints.  She continued to collect and record her insect/plant specimens and also wrote and published three collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677, and 1680.

The work that Maria Sibylla Merian published, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung — The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, became very popular in certain sections of high society as a result of being published in the her native language, but her growing success as a painter placed a strain on the married couple.   In Amsterdam, Sibylla and her botanical art work attracted the attention of various contemporary scientists. Following the interests of her brother in the rapidly growing religious sect known as The Labadistes, Sibylla  herself became a member. The Labadistes were a 17th century protestant religious community movement founded by Frenchman Jean de Labadie (1610–1674), roman catholic Jesuit priest who eventually was ordained as a Protestant minister in 1650. The Labadistes advocated  a revival of practical and devout Christianity and celibacy.

In 1685, at the age of 38, she sold most of her worldly possessions in order to leave Amsterdam for the Labadiste colony in Holland. Her decision to leave Amsterdam was perhaps based on three important issues.  In the first instance, it gave her legitimate freedom.  The Labadiste marriage tenets proclaimed that no valid marriage could exist between a Labadiste and a non-Labadiste. Further, she had learned that the communal living was, in fact, more affordable. Finally, because her work with spiders, insects, toads, and dead animals aroused suspicion that she practiced witchcraft – a crime for which resulted in execution – leaving Holland seemed the best thing to do. With her mother and two daughters in tow, Sibylla set out for the Labadiste commune in Wieuwerd in Friesland, Holland.  A year later, Johan traveled to Wieuwwerd to reclaim his family.  Sibylla refused.  She sent him away and reclaimed her maiden name of Merian.

Merian remained in Wieuwerd for six years where she was restrained from practicing her art because of religious doctrine. She made good use of her time, however, by recording the natural world around her and learning to speak and write Dutch.   The Labadiste colony began to dissolve and break apart and thus their restrictions upon members to leave off the practice of art was now no longer binding upon Merian.  In 1691, less than a year after Merian’s mother dies, Merian, at the age of 43, returns to Amsterdam and the world with Johanna and her younger daughter, twelve year old Dorothea.
Known to the world of academia for publishing, art, and science, Merian gained entrance to some of the more powerful families of Amsterdam.  Nestled in her new home with her two daughters, she continued her notes on collecting and began teaching young women the art of flower painting.  Only a year later, she learns of the new Labadiste colony in Surinam. Her older daughter, Johanna Helena, marries merchant Jacob Herolt and moved with him to Surinam, which was at that time a recently acquired Dutch colony.

Around this time the English were recording the flora of Virginia and the Caribbean but no one yet had published anything on South American flora or fauna. Merian hungered to study the insects and flora of South America and its jungles.   Father Charles Plumier at the behest of King Louis XIV, was the first to describe the natural world of the southern hemisphere.  With her inspiration tipping the scales of fate, soon the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to travel to Surinam along with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria aboard the ship, Willem de Ruyter.

The Willem de Ruyter followed the Portuguese route initiated by Columbus –  from Lisboa to the African bulge, the Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands, on to Cape Verde Islands, the Island of Santiago, around the coast and finally reaching the mouth of the Surinam River and the port of Paramaribo in early August of 1699.  With help not as much from the members of the Labadiste community, but rather the Indians and Negro slaves, Merian and her daughter Dorothea were able to collect and record specimens from the jungle .  She would ultimately illustrate the symbiotic relationship between numerous plants and insects and collecting twenty huge boxes of specimens.

In 1701, malaria forced Merian to return to Netherlands. Back in the Netherlands she sold specimens she had collected and published a collection of engravings about the life in Surinam. In 1705 she published a book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Surinam. She used Linnaeus’ classification of natural species.

Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.


Patricia Kleps-Hok: Search for Sibylla: The 17th Century’s Woman of Today, U.S.A 2007,

de Bray, Lys (2001). The Art of Botanical Illustration: A history of classic illustrators and their achievements. Quantum Publishing Ltd., London.

Kim Todd: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis. Harcourt, USA, 2007.

Natalie Zemon Davis: Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives


One Response to “Visionary Pursuits”

  1. lånigt says:

    howdy-do. Good text and a good blog