Women in the 1700s didn’t work, they weren’t scientists, and they didn’t travel alone. Maria Sibylla Merian broke through all these barriers, creating a career for herself by combining art and science in a whole new way. Her drive to know sent her (at age 52!) to South America to study in the rainforest. Her life would be extraordinary if she were living today, but it’s even more so in that world.
This article is about Maria’s life and travels, as a woman adventurer.
Maria’s Life and Work
Born in 1647 in Frankfort, Germany, Maria was curious about the natural world from a very early age. When she was three years old, she began to study bugs and plants. She would bring home chrysalises and watch until they turned into butterflies. By the time she was 13, she was raising silkworms and other insects. She began to roam the countryside near her home to search for insects, and she recorded their behaviors, the timing of their metamorphosis and the plants they lived with.
Soon she was creating illustrations, which were printed at her step-father’s printing company. She began to correspond with some of the scientists of her day, and she came to be known for her illustrations, like those to the right. Note the detail on these sketches. Her first works, two books of caterpillar prints, were published when she was 32 and 36.
In 1665, Maria married Johann Graff from Nuremberg; her first child, Johanna, was born in 1668 and her second child, Dorothea, in 1678. Her marriage was not a happy one, and in 1685, Maria, her daughters, and her mother moved to Waltha Castle in Friesland, where there was a sect of Labadists.
The Labadists were a pietist religious movement that emphasized piety, simplicity, and self-denial. Maria had to give up many of her possessions, including her books (yikes!) but not her drawing materials. Of course, she continued to study natural history while she was there.
When she left the Labadists in 1691 Maria and her daughters moved to Amsterdam (her mother had died), and her husband divorced her in 1692. I should mention that she was making money selling books and her artwork throughout her adult life, so she wasn’t destitute as most women of the time would have been.
Maria’s Journey to Surinam
At 52, in 1699, free from her husband and eagerly wanting to know more about the natural world, Maria sold some paintings and financed her own exploration to Surinam, a Dutch colony on the northeastern coast of South America. She went there in part because the Labadists had a colony there and she took her younger daughter Dorothea (age 21) with her. She planned to stay five years, doing “vigorous investigations” of insects, to bring back specimens to be studied, painted, and cataloged.
The perils of the journey to Surinam were what you might expect in the 18th century. Shipwreck was a distinct possibility, as were pirates.
Once in Paramaribo, the capital of Surinam, Maria found a world that was not so clearly delineated as that in Amsterdam. The line between jungle and town was thin. Tigers, wild boars roamed freely. Insects were everywhere, some carrying yellow fever or malaria.
The natives – Amerindians, slaves, and maroons (offspring of native Indians and African slaves) – she found more helpful than Dutch colonists in her explorations. The natives slept in hammocks to keep cool; the Dutch slept in beds and got bitten. Maria’s room was alive all night with the hum of insects.
At first, she stayed in town, wandering kitchen gardens and cataloging new species of butterflies. After a while, she started venturing into the rainforest, where she found a different world. She soon saw that the typical seasonal pattern of Europe didn’t apply here. The rainforest was hot and dry or hot and wet; there was no winter dormancy. The forest was a dense tangle of trees and shrubs; snakes could drop out of a tree and she was constantly wet from the oppressive heat and daily rains.
In her Surinam book, Maria said,
The forest grew together so closely with thistles and thorns, I sent slaves with hatchets ahead, so that they chopped an opening for me, in order to go through to some extent, which was rather combersome.
Most of the insect activity took place above the ground, sometimes as high as the canopy (the treetops), 150 feet in the air. Butterflies were abundant; overwhelming, in fact. Thousands of them flew over her head and if she found one she had no guarantee of knowing what kind of plant it liked, or whether she would ever see it again.
Sometimes she propped a ladder on a tree to gather caterpillars, or she would request that a tree be chopped down.
The butterflies were complex – some poisonous ones mimicked non-poisonous ones, while non-poisonous ones mimicked their poisonous cousins. There were even moths that looked like hummingbirds. She knew that drawings of mysterious creatures would spur sales, so she sketched as many as she could.
In her second year in Surinam, she fell ill. It isn’t clear whether it was yellow fever or malaria. In any case, there was no quinine at the time, no medicines to lessen her symptoms. She reluctantly returned to Amsterdam, saying, “This heat treated me poorly and I was compelled to return home earlier than planned.”
The Rest of Maria’s Life
After she returned from Surinam, she spent several years creating what I would consider her masterpiece, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam). The version to the right is a facsimile, in German, and it’s $75.00. Maybe someday someone will publish an English version. I love the prints!
Maria had a stroke in 1715 and died in January 1717. Both of her daughters followed in her footsteps. Johanna and her husband went to Surinam, where she painted and collected specimens, and Dorothea worked with her mother’s collection after her death, completing her work.
In this article, I skimmed over much of Maria’s life to concentrate on her studies of natural history and her journey to Surinam.
I used this biography by Kim Todd for much of the information about Maria’s life. There is little written by or about her; only 17 letters, a will, a lawsuit, and her books and notebooks. There is almost nothing about her personal life or her inner life.
In this type of biography, the author must take some liberties and expand the facts. Todd did a good job of this, providing insight into the times and places where Maria lived, and the people she knew. When she imagined Maria’s thoughts, she went a little too far, but overall the biography was enjoyable and interesting.
Why Maria Sibylla Merian is Important
Unlike other women in the 18th century, Maria achieved some recognition in her time, and she was well-regarded as both a scientist and artist. She was quite entrepreneurial; she had a good eye for what would sell, and she wasn’t afraid to publicize herself. She worked in her family’s printing business, where she learned much about the commercial world of the time
In some ways, Maria was a product of her time and place. The central role of Dutch women in the 18th century was home and domesticity, but the social atmosphere of the time gave them more freedom and fewer social restrictions than women in other European countries.
Todd notes that the repressive society of the time didn’t allow women to enter into fields where sex in any form might be discussed, and certainly studying reproduction (even if it relates to butterflies) might have been a problem for her. I have a feeling that Maria’s choice to express her scientific interests in artistic ways might have eased her entry into scientific society.
She had a goal from a young age, and she made herself one of the premier experts in her field. Maria wasn’t afraid to venture out of the easier life in Amsterdam to make the perilous journey to Surinam with her daughter. Her adventurous spirit and curiosity overrode any fears she might have had.
She did return early, but she had already collected two year’s worth of specimens, so it wasn’t a wasted effort. Up until just before her death, she continued to be productive and energetic.
The scientific world owes much to Maria Sibylla Merian’s groundbreaking discoveries and the art world is richer for her beautiful drawings. If you want more proof of her value to the world, here it is: Maria was featured in a Google Doodle on April 2, 2013, the 366th anniversary of her birthday.
Further Reading By and About Maria Sibylla Merian
A World Away: What Surinam Can Teach Us (Forbes, Aril 7, 2014, Melik Kaylan)
In a 2015 article in Entomology Today, Maria Sibylla Merian was one of five featured female entomologists in a special series.
Amazon has a number of books about her, including several for young readers. You can also find books of her art prints, although I wasn’t able to find a copy of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium in English.
Maria Sibylla Merian: Recovering an Eighteenth-Century Legend, by Sharon Valiant. In Eighteenth-Century Studies,Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 467-479. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
The Getty Museum had an exhibition in 2008 featuring Maria and her daughters. Some art books related to Maria are noted on their exhibition website.
Read my Goodreads review of Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis.
Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive money if you click on a link and buy a book from one of these links.