The remarkable Marie Sibelle Merian

by Ann Sylph on

Histoire des insectes de l'Europe, dessinées d'apres nature et expliquées par Marie Sibille Merian... traduite du hollandois en françois par Jean Marret.
Amsterdam :  Bernard, 1730


Dissertation sur la génération et les transformations des insectes de Surinam... par Marie Sibille Merian. La Haye : Cosse, 1726.
Parallel texts Latin-French. French translation by Jean Rousset de Missy

Artefact of the month - Marie Sibille Merian

We are featuring these two amazing works by Marie Sibelle Merian for several celebrations this month -  World Book Day on 6 March  , International Women’s Day 8 March   and Science and Engineering Week 14-23 March

Marie Sibille Merian (1647-1717) was a remarkable woman, passionately interested in insects and their transformations. She was born in Frankfurt, Germany the daughter of an engraver Matthaus Merian the Elder. Her mother was widowed and subsequently married Jacob Marrell, a  Dutch flower painter. From an early age Merian was surrounded by both art and nature, she began investigating flies, spiders and caterpillars in 1600 when she was thirteen.

Later in her life she moved to Amsterdam where through the activities of the Dutch East India Company, there were many collections from the Dutch colonies so she had access to the cabinets of many leading naturalists.

Artefact of the month - Marie Sibille Merian

She studied the life cycle of European insects, realising they were not formed by `spontaneous generation’. She published her work on European insects and their associated food plants, in her illustrations she showed that the metamorphosis of insects was a scientific fact. She was inspired by the exotic butterflies sent back from the Dutch colonies and at the age of fifty two in 1699 she travelled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) to make a pictorial record of the metamorphosis of South American insects. Her two daughters accompanied her and assisted with the illustrations. She was a member of the Labadist Church and she used their community as her base in La Providence in Surinam. Travelling into the dense forests for collecting and observing must have been fraught with difficulties.

As a result of her three years in Surinam she produced a fascinating book, lavishly illustrated depicting a wide variety of colourful tropical insects, their life-cycles and associated food plants.  Many of the insects were not previously known to science and most are depicted life-size. Her artistic groupings of insects and other animals amongst the tropical flora makes this one of the most beautiful and unusual natural history books. It was an important book of natural history of that era and the first scientific work devoted to Surinam.

ZSL Library’s volumes on Surinam and Europe are bound together emphasising the contrast between the uncoloured illustrations of the European volume to the colourful tropical insects and plants of the volume about Surinam. Our copy was acquired from a sale of `duplicates’ by the British Museum’s in the 19th century. We probably acquired our volumes of Catesby in the same sale, one of these volumes belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, it has been catalogued for the Sloane Printed Books Project   Sadly our Merian’s were not one of Sloane’s copies, although they have a similar rich binding. Hence the provenance of our copies and whoever arranged for them to be bound together is unknown!

Artefact of the month - Marie Sibille Merian

Further reading:

Amazing rare things : the art of natural history in the age of discovery / David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton and Rea Alexandratos. London : Royal Collection Publications, 2007.

Art of nature : three centuries of natural history art from around the world / Judith Magee. London : Natural History Museum, 2009

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