Chances are you hadn’t heard of Maria Sibylla Merian before she was celebrated by Google on her 366th birthday April 2nd. And yet she was one of the most famous and accomplished naturalists of her day.
She was born in 1647, in Germany. Her father, an engraver and publisher, died when she was three. Her stepfather was a Dutch painter who inspired his young daughter, but left when she was twelve, leaving Maria and her mother on their own. Maria continued her art, taking a special interest in insects, which she would catch and raise so that she could draw them. This would be an unusual habit even for a teenager today, and it was unheard of for a girl in the 17th Century. Her mother must have been wonderfully supportive.
She had a particular interest in the metamorphosis of butterflies, and she studied and documented this process firsthand. She was also very interested in the connection between plants and insects, and often painted insects with the plants that provided food for them. She was also fiercely independent. At the age of 52 and divorced, she took her 16-year-old daughter on a trip to South America to study the plants and insects there. Her daughter followed in her footsteps, continuing her work in South America even as Maria had to return home due to illness.
What I find especially amazing about this artist is her love of insects. Today we do everything we can to eliminate insects from our daily lives. We spray them with poison even at the risk of our own health, despite the fact that insects support our entire ecosystem. And yet she saw something beautiful in them, despite (or perhaps because of) their strange appearance.
The painting at the top of this page appears at first glance to be a simple flower arrangement, but five insects add a wildness that’s surprising and a little unnerving. We expect our flora paintings to be gentle and harmless, we don’t expect them to bite us. But in depicting insects as beautiful works of art, she is inviting us into her world, telling us not to be afraid, that there is much to be celebrated in these little creatures.
Maria Sibylla Merian was ahead of her time in many ways, and we can all be inspired by her life and her work. You can read a lot about her at this website, which has links to many articles and galleries of her work.
Below is a slideshow put together by a fan on YouTube, to the music of Handel.
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