Meet Sibylla

The illustration of the pineapple fruit opens the collection of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium – the transformation of insects from Suriname, the most important work in the rich oeuvre of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). According to the words she wrote, pineapple was the most important edible fruit in the Americas and that was why she gave him the priority of description. She showed him at the time of flowering and in the company of other famous Americans – cockroaches, known because of the damage they inflict on plants on which they feed and from their special weakness to pineapples (as well as everything that is sweet).

Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple and
cockroaches (from Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium) 1705

Merian’s entire life is characterized by independence when making decisions, sometimes unobvious, though always right for her. She came from an artistic family, her father was an engraver and an independent publisher in Frankfurt, and her stepfather – Jacob Marrel specialized in painting still lifes. Young Merian took over their interests, not only artistic, but also in observation of reality. With time they developed into her  work as botanic and entomologist. She initially practiced her skills on silkworms that were kept in Frankfurt.

She spent the first sixteen years of adulthood as the wife of the painter Johann Andreas Graff and, gradually, as the mother of two daughters: Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. She invariably practiced her entomological interests, the effects of which she published successively. When she was about forty she made the first radical change in her life – she divorced her husband and together with her daughters and mother joined the community of labadians living in the Waltha castle in the Netherlands, which was owned by the then Governor of Suriname. He gathered an exotic collection of local flora and fauna, which aroused more and more curiosity in Merian of this distant, mysterious place that Suriname was.

Forty-four-year-old Merian moved with her daughters again, this time to Amsterdam, where she participated actively in the artistic and scientific life of the city. She partly maintained herself by her own work, partly by receiving support from the wealthy patrons of her research. And there she decided on an exploring expedition to Suriname and began laborious gathering funds for it. Merian was already a mature fifty-two-year-old woman. Her younger daughter, Dorothea, accompanied her on this journey. They stayed on labadian plantations for two years, watching nature in its vivicity. The disease of Sibylla, accelerated the return of the researchers which, however, did not stand in the way of publishing her work of life.

Merian paid a lot of attention to obtaining the highest quality of her publication, she hired the best engravers, she printed on the best parchment. The front-page, which opens the collection, may also testify to her awareness of her own worth. We see the artist sitting at the table, comparing the flowering twig she kept in hand to the illustration in the album lying beside her. Like a goddess, she is surrounded by putti, helping her at work and bringing various specimens of nature.

The next pages contain detailed descriptions of different species of insects. Only in the introduction did Sibylla allow herself to share some personal reflection among the scientific story. Among the practical information, there are references to an adventurous stay, methods of work and recollections of the help she received from the inhabitants of Suriname. Each of the insects illustrated by her was viewed in nature, often with a microscope, presented on cards in a natural size, at various stages of the life cycle and with the plant on which it was feeding.

Merian was unique because she studied insects in their natural environment, not in the studio. She did not perform vivisection on them as many of her colleagues did. Her engravings give a clear description of the world and the uniqueness that it offers, especially to the entomologist in New World. She was guided by pure curiosity while watching life and creating its record. Joachim von Sandrart did not make a mistake, when in 1675 in his work on the history of art he compared her to the goddess of wisdom – Minerva.

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