This post is the fifth in a short blog series featuring important figures in the history of natural history.
Maria Sibylla Merian is considered one of the most important naturalists of the 17th century. Though she was well known during her lifetime due to her family’s successful publishing company, one of the largest at the time, her continuing fame and influence is due to her meticulous illustrations and insights into insect development.
Her stepfather, a still-life painter, recognized her artistic potential at a young age and began to train her alongside his own students. She learned how to draw, paint and make engravings on copper under his instruction, skills that few women at the time possessed. She published plates in books about flowers, but her focus soon turned away from flowers and towards the insects that dwelt on them.
Merian was fascinated with insects from a young age, and enjoyed collecting live caterpillars to rear into butterflies. As her artistic skills progressed and her reputation grew, the wealthy and elite would invite her to view their private gardens and illustrate the plants they maintained. As she did this, Merian took the opportunity to observe and illustrate the different types of insects associated with each plant.
Illustration is a meticulous process, requiring a great deal of time and effort. Trying to translate a complex three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional representation requires a different kind of thinking, but taking such an approach can cause someone to see qualities they did not notice before and gain a deeper understand of what they are looking at.
This is why drawing can be a helpful exercise for students studying anatomy and natural history. This is also what made Merian such an effective naturalist: her background as an illustrator, combined with her passion and dedication to the natural world, led her to realize that insects are not the product of spontaneous generation. Instead, Merian was among the first to show that insects have different life stages and undergo metamorphosis.
Merian created beautiful illustrations of insects, showing their larvae, pupae and adult forms as well as their hosts and habitat. Her illustrations are so detailed and accurate that many of the insects she drew can be identified down to genus and species. She observed how some caterpillars with different coloration and different host plants still had the same adult forms, constituting some of the first observations on generalist and specialist species in Lepidoptera. She distinguished between nocturnal and diurnal species, and even observed parasitoids, proposing that flies laid eggs on caterpillars and developed inside them instead of just spontaneously generating. She published her observations and illustrations in Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung, which can be translated as The Caterpillars’ Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food.
When she was 52, she financed her own trip to Suriname in South America, something that was almost unheard of for a woman of her age at the time. She desired to travel to South America so that she could observe insects and other animals in their natural habitats. She was forced to return to Europe after she contracted malaria, but in the two years she stayed in South America she was able to illustrated 60 species of plants and 90 species of animals. Some of her illustrations are the only known records of those species—it is likely that those species are now extinct. The product of her travels was the Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, which is regarded as her most famous work.
Today, Merian is remembered for her beautiful illustrations of insect life stages and her notes on metamorphosis. Though Merian never received formal training as a scholar or scientist, her training as an illustrator allowed her to follow in Aristotle’s footsteps and make several insightful discoveries about the natural world.
Special thanks to Shelley Whitehead for her help with this post!