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Maria Sibylla Merian, the Lady of the blue butterflies (and other beauties)

Updated on April 15, 2013
Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian | Source

Back to the beginning

From around 1450, European artists have been inspired by nature, studying in detail insects, animals and/or flowers. But this kind of art has a creator, and his name is Georg Flegel (1566-1638), a German painter who used to portray crawling insects (wasps and beetles). Georg Flegel was not unknown in Maria Sibylla Merian’s family.

Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt (2 April 1647), into a family of publishers and printers. Her father was Matthäus Merian the Elder, a Swiss-born engraver (he also ran a publishing house). He published some of the most influential natural texts of the 1600s and the German travel magazine Merian was named after him. Matthäus Merian died three years after the birth of her daughter, Maria Sibylla. It seems that he made a prophecy on his deathbed, that the name of Merian would be remembered for ever because of his daughter’s reputation. This was a good prophecy.

After Matthäus Merian the Elder died, Maria Sibylla’s mother remarried a still life painter, Jacob Marrel (he had been trained by Georg Flegel). The remarriage was typical for that time, and so was using child labor in family business. As a consequence, Maria Sibylla was encouraged to develop her artistic talent by her stepfather. Maria’s mother and Marrell had two children, but both died. Once Marrell’s children from his previous marriage grew up, he left his new family, letting Maria and her mother on their own (even if he continued to support Maria Sibylla somehow; she was only 12).

Marrel is the one who introduced the little girl to the art of miniature, flower painting (against her mother's will, apparently Johanna Sibylla lacked artistic skills). From Marrel, Maria Sibylla learned illustration, drawing, paint mixing, sketching, watercolor and oil painting. She started to observe/analyze caterpillars, moths, butterflies and, by the age of 13, she had already observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm. She liked a lot to represent fruits, flowers, birds and insects. It is well known that, later, women would be excluded from science, but in Maria Sibylla’s time women were accepted as illustrators and observers.

At 13 Maria Sibylla Merian wrote:

I collected all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphosis. I therefore withdrew from society and devoted myself to these investigations.

The first ecologist

Maria Sibylla married at 18, in 1665, with Marrell’s favourite apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff (28 years old). In the previous year, Graff returned to Frankfurt from Italy. He was ready to become a master, but according to the guild law he needed to be married. So they married, but she kept her own name and established her own business (selling hand-painted silks with flowers of Merian’s design). The young and happy couple moved to Nuremberg, and there Maria Sibylla wrote the first volume of her two-volume book, Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from flowers (or simply, The Caterpillar Book). She depicted moths and butterflies in various stages of metamorphosis, and in a text she explained the colors and the timing for each stage of transformation. Nuremberg was not very friendly to female artists. As an example, women artists were prohibited to paint professionally in oils. This is why Maria Sibylla used watercolors as her favorite medium. Maria Sibylla and Johann Andreas had only two children, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria, in a period in which marriages produced around ten.

Nobody knows for sure if it was a happy marriage, but later Maria Sibyllamoved with her daughters and her aging mother to Netherlands, in order to join a strict religious sect, the Labadists (a primitive form of Christianity). It seems that her half-brother Caspar had come under the sway of a Pietist preacher, named Jean de Labadie. Maria Sibylla joined Caspar in a chilly village, somewhere between Netherlands and Germany. Their lives were not comfortable, the rules were very strict: plain clothes, simple food (and not so much), few fires. More than that, according to The Labadists’ law, personal property became community property.

The Labadists

Jean de Labadie (1610-1674) was, at the beginning, a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit. Later (1639) he left the order because of frequent visions and inner enlightenment. Labadie urged his followers to withdraw from the corrupt world and live a simple life, Christian simplicity.

There were enough reasons to feel oppressed, so, after her mother died, Maria Sibylla took her daughters and moved back to Amsterdam, but she could not rely on her husband or her family for connections. The best news was that in Amsterdam women could own businesses, having their own properties, so Maria Sibylla and her daughters could survive.

Maria Sibylla and Johann Andreas divorced (she was 39). Maybe the real reason for their unhappiness was a religious one.Graff was a Lutheran, she was a Calvinist. After divorce, she moved to Netherlands with her both daughters. The girls shared their mother’s hobby in art and entomology. They became painters.

Drawing was not the only interest of Maria Sibylla. She used to collect caterpillars from her garden, studying the process of metamorphosis, from egg cocoon and pupa to the last phase, butterfly. I must say that in that time, the common opinion was that the insects come from “spontaneous generation of rotting mud”. More than that, it was very unusual for someone, especially a woman, to be interested in insects. Insects had a very bad reputation, being called “beasts of the devil”. Of course, the scholars knew about this metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, but most of people didn’t understand the whole process. However, in spite of this idea, Maria Sibylla studied the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies. But, after a while, this was not enough anymore. She wanted to see exotic insects in their natural habitats, not only the killed ones, pinned to a board. Consequently, in 1699 (she was 52) she moved with her younger daughter to Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America. For her it was a tough and very beautiful period in the same time. She caught butterflies, fireflies, bees, killed them (gently!!!) and prepared them for a trip back to Europe, in order to be able to study them later. More than that, she used to keep few reptiles in brandy. She even brought some eggs of a blue lizard (which laid eggs in a corner of her house). Her picture of a pomegranate and a morpho butterfly, depicted realistic damage to leaves caused by hungry insects. She likened the morpho wings to peacock feathers (a very logic comparison).

In Surinam, many of the locals were slaves, American Indian or African. Maria Sibylla was not an abolitionist, but she didn't like the way the slaves were treated.

Even if she had intended to stay in Surinam at least five years, she had to come back to Amsterdam after two years, because of some health problems (malaria or yellow fever). In Europe she finished the watercolors published later as he Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, or The Insects of Surinam. This work established her international reputation, even if it didn't bring her great wealth. In her time, art could not just show plants, or animals, it had also communicate the right meaning, a message. A bud, a flower in full bloom, a dead flower chewed by bugs show a life cycle, communicate a message.

In 1715, Maria Sibylla suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. Only few days before her death (13 January 1717), Czar Peter the Great purchased some of her watercolors. After the czar’s death (1725), her works were presented to the Academy of Sciences, until today. A year after Maria Sibylla’s death, her youngest daughter, Dorothea, moved with her family to St. Petersburg, in order to paint specimens from the czar's curiosity cabinet. She was the first woman employed by the Russian Academy of Sciences. After her mother death, Dorothea published a third volume of The Caterpillar Book, with 50 more of her mother's observations and an appendix on insects observed by Johanna Helena.

Today, Merian is remembered as someone with a focus on metamorphosis and the importance of studying the animal's habitat along with its anatomy. She was an important painter at a time when women were not permitted to earn a living as a painter.


I created the first classification for all the insects which had chrysalises, the daytime butterflies and the nighttime moths. The second classification is that of the maggots, worms, flies and bees. I retained the indigenous names of the plants, because they were still in use in America by both the locals and the Indians (in the foreword of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium)

The Menelaus Blue Morpho

This is a tropical butterfly from central and South America, with a wingspan of 15 cm. He was named by Carl Linnaeus to honor the king of Ancient Sparta, Menelaus. The adult males have brighter colors than the females.

This butterfly was featured in the 2004 film, The Blue Butterfly, a Canadian-British production (starring William Hurt), as well as an episode of Go, Diego, go!

The Menelaus Blue Morpho


Georg Friedrich Händel, Concerto Grosso Op. 3, no. 2, Maria Sibylla Merian


A Parrot Tulip

Subject: A Parrot Tulip, Auriculas, and Red Currants, with a Magpie Moth, its Caterpillar and Pupa
Subject: A Parrot Tulip, Auriculas, and Red Currants, with a Magpie Moth, its Caterpillar and Pupa | Source

Maria Sibylla Merian


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