Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters: at the crossroads of art and science

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian butterflies caterpillar pomegranate

This exhibition, titled Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science, brings long overdue attention to these three naturalists and painters. Maria Sibylla, born in Frankfurt in 1647 into a family of publishers and printers, was encouraged to develop her artistic gifts by her stepfather, himself a still-life painter.

She published her first collection of drawings, The New Book of Flowers, even though her home town of Nuremberg was not friendly to female artists: women there were prohibited by law to paint professionally in oils. This may explain why watercolors became Maria Sibylla’s favorite medium.

Maria Sibylla’s interests ranged beyond her artistic pursuits. She collected caterpillars from her garden and pioneered the scientifically accurate depiction of insects, in particular the process of metamorphosis, from egg to pupa to fully developed butterfly.

Married in her teens, Maria Sibylla divorced at the age of 39. She then moved to the Netherlands with her two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria, who both shared their mother’s interest in art and entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian bananas butterfly

In Amsterdam, the three ladies set up a successful business selling art supplies, prints of Maria Sibylla’s Caterpillar Book, as well as insect specimens from the Dutch colonies around the world.

But this was not enough for Maria Sibylla. She wanted to discover exotic insects not only as specimens pinned to a board, but live, in their natural habitats. And she did! In 1699 Maria Sibylla sold her possessions and, accompanied by her younger daughter Dorothea Maria,  set sail for Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. This magnificent watercolor of a blue morpho butterfly (above) dates from that period.

Two years later, health concerns forced Maria Sibylla to return to Amsterdam. With the help of her daughters, who had both become painters, she put the finishing touches to the watercolors that would be published under the title The Insects of Suriname.  A few years later, it was the turn of the elder daughter, Johanna Helena, to move to Suriname, whence she shipped specimens to her mother and sister.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian pomegranate

By the time of her death in 1717, Maria Sibylla had achieved such international reputation that many of her watercolors were purchased by Czar Peter the Great.

I must confess that, before visiting the exhibition, I had never heard of Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters. The Getty should be commended for paying tribute to the artistic and scientific collaboration of these outstanding women. The works displayed, remarkable for their colors and detail, are a treat to the eye, and their quality matches the historical interest of the show.

Until August 31, 2008 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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