It is butterfly season again. After a few hot, dry months, it is a treat to see so many different kinds of butterflies fluttering and flitting among the flowers and leaves. Butterflies have inspired art and poetry; and they have also been the subject of the scientific study by lepidopterists. The distance between the art and the science has always been distinct, starting from primary school where children learn about the life cycle of butterflies in Science class and draw and paint these colourful creatures in the Art class.
It is amazing to know that nearly four centuries before there was a woman who successfully and brilliantly combined the art and the science to produce some of the most groundbreaking work on butterflies and other insects. This is her inspiring story.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt at a time when scientific study of life was still in its infancy. Her father was an engraver and publisher, who died when Maria was a baby. When she was three years old, Maria’s mother married Jacob Marrel who was a renowned still-life painter. He encouraged young Maria’s interest in collecting live insects and also taught her the art of flower painting. As she grew, so did her passion for both these hobbies—which became lifelong commitments.
Women of Maria’s class and era collected butterflies as a hobby. Their catches were displayed as pinned specimens. Maria was driven by a different approach. She was not interested in dead specimens. She was fascinated by live insects and wanted to understand not just the insects and their life stages; but also their habits and habitats, the plants that they associated with and fed on, and their interactions with other species.
From the age of 13 she started collecting caterpillars and raising silkworms. She observed how they changed form at different stages, until they developed into butterflies or moths. She not only kept meticulous records and notes of her observations, but also detailed drawings of the process. She often painted by candlelight as she awaited the moment when the caterpillar made its cocoon, or a butterfly emerged from one. She painted caterpillars feeding on their host plants and being fed upon by their predators.
She publishing her first book of illustrations at age 28; this was followed by a two-volume set on caterpillars (published in 1679 and 1683) that showed the metamorphosis and host plants of 186 species.
Maria Merian was the first person to document the life cycle of butterflies. At that time it was widely believed that life originated spontaneously from inanimate matter. For example, that flies arose from rotting meat; other insects, including butterflies formed from mud, and that raindrops produced frogs. Maria’s observations and documentation opened up a new dimension.
This was also an era when most women did not have the opportunity of going to university. Maria was far from a being an academic scientist, nor did she have the freedom to devote all her time and energy to this pursuit. At the age of 18 she married her stepfather’s apprentice, and had two daughters. The marriage was not a happy one, and she left her husband, taking both her daughters, to live in a religious community; eventually getting a divorce. For many years she brought up her daughters as a single mother, supporting the family by teaching paining to daughters of wealthy families; and still making time for her art and scientific studies. By then she had moved to the Netherlands, where she spent the rest of her life.
For the first fifty years of her life, Maria observed and documented hundreds of European insects, from caterpillars to spiders. She became well known for her work; collectors and art dealers would frequently come to her and show her insect dead specimens for her to observe.
But in 1699, at the age of 52, she embarked on one of the first purely scientific expeditions in history. She sold 255 of her paintings to finance the trip. Her goal was to illustrate new species of insects in Surinam, a South American country which had been recently colonised by the Dutch. After two months of dangerous travel, accompanied by her 20-year-old younger daughter, she reached Surinam.
For Maria Merian this was an entomologist’s paradise. She was itching to collect and paint everything she saw. But the Dutch planters of the island were not willing to accompany the two women into the forests to collect insects. So she forged relationships with enslaved Africans and indigenous people who agreed to bring her specimens and who shared with her the medicinal and culinary uses of many plants. Merian and daughter spent two years in Surinam before Maria’s failing health from frequent bouts of malaria, forced then to return to the Netherlands.
But the compilation of all her work in documenting and illustrating flora and fauna in Surinam resulted in a book titled Metamorphosis insectorum Surnamensium. It was written in Latin, the international language of science, with 60 stunning copperplate engravings that brought the exotic world of the rainforest to the damp drawing rooms of Europe. The book became well known in scientific and artistic circles.
Merian’s eldest daughter, Joanna, subsequently made the journey to Surinam and would send her mother new specimens and paintings until Merian’s death, at the age of almost 70, in 1717.
For a woman of her time, with no university education, Maria Merian’s meticulous scientific and artistic work earned her respect. Karl Linnaeus, famous for developing a system for classifying life, referred heavily to her illustrations in his species descriptions. The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin, cited Merian’s work in his book The Botanic Garden.
Merian also published works in German and Dutch, which allowed lay readers unprecedented access to scientific discoveries, arguably making her one of the earliest science communicators.
Merian was also proved to be a successful businesswoman. She sold her drawings and engravings to finance the printing of her own books, which she would later sell. This financial security also allowed her the freedom her to pursue her interests and ideas.
In the 1800’s, by which time university-trained academics laid stake to “biological knowledge” there was a trend to discredit Maria Merian and her work. As she had no formal scientific training she was written off as a woman with a hobby who painted beautiful – but entirely unscientific – pictures of butterflies. Although her work continued to inspire and influence generations of artists, her contributions as a scientist were largely forgotten. It is only in more recent years that her scientific work has been revisited and revived.
Maria Sibylla Merian was a pioneering naturalist, who also managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, and entomologist. Merian studied the behaviour and interactions of living things at a time when taxonomy and systematics (naming and cataloguing) were still at a nascent stage. She laid the groundwork for the fields of entomology, animal behaviour and ecology. She was the first ever to show the interaction between species, food chains, and the struggle for survival in nature. And how environment affects development and behaviour. She captured the ecology of species, centuries before the term even existed.
At a time when other scientists were trying to make sense of the natural world by classifying plants and animals into narrow categories, Merian looked at their place within the wider natural world. She searched for connections where others were looking for separation.
Today when there is so much talk of encouraging women in STEM, it is more than worthwhile to remind ourselves of this inspiring woman who not only successfully combined her artistic and scientific work, but also pioneered fields of study that we erroneously believe to have more recent origins.