Flowers by Maria Sibylla Merian

Illustration: Maria Sibylla Merian/Wikimedia Commons

Today’s Google doodle pays tribute to an artist whose name might not be readily familiar to anyone except art historians with a special interest in botanical flora and entomology. The artist is the naturalist, explorer and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), who was born in Frankfurt, Germany, into a middle-class family of publishers and artists. Today is the 366th anniversary of her birth — just the kind of unusual milestone Google likes to remember.

Maria Sibylla MerianMerian was fascinated by insects, especially the silkworm. At a time when few women were encouraged to participate in arts or the sciences, she began painting moths, butterflies and caterpillars under the careful eyes of her father and stepfather. By the age of 28, she had published her first book, "Neues Blumenbuch," or the "New Book of Flowers," The three-volume work was printed sequentially and would later become regarded as a model for artists, embroiderers on silk, and cabinetmakers.

In 1678, she returned to her interest in caterpillars by working on "Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung" – "Caterpillars: Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers." Published in 1679, this book is now seen through the lens of time as a "major advance in entomology." 

During these years she married her father’s apprentice and bore two daughters. The marriage did not last, and Merian and the daughters left Germany for Amsterdam where she supported her family by selling her paintings. She became fascinated by the tropical flora and fauna that was arriving in Amsterdam from the Dutch colony of Suriname. Because of her fame and unusual interests, she was invited by the wealthy elites who amassed these natural history collections to see their tropical treasures.

She spent eight years studying and painting the local collections, all the while determined to visit Suriname where she could paint its flora and insects in nature. Finally, the city of Amsterdam awarded her a grant to travel to Suriname — an unheard-of offer at the time since only men were usually awarded such grants.

Merian and her youngest daughter set sail in 1699. The women were forced to cut their work short after just two years when Merian was stricken with malaria. Even so, three years later she published her masterpiece, "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium." The book contained paintings of moths, butterflies, beetles and spiders unknown to Europeans of the time.

After being stricken by a stroke in 1715, Merian died a pauper in 1717 at the age of 70. After all this time, you may wonder why we should care about Maria Sibylla Merian but her skill as a painter and passion for insects changed science forever. She not only painted insects but cultivated them as well, disproving the theory of the day that insects rose spontaneously from mud. She was also the first artist to document the life stages of insects. These interests were considered unladylike at the time. But in today’s world, Maria Sibylla Merian is remembered as one of the best botanical and entomological illustrators of all time.

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Inset photo of Merian: Wikimedia Commons