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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Maria Sibylla Merian

b. 1647, Frankfurt am Main; d. 1717, Amsterdam

Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist and artist whose contributions to entomology were not fully acknowledged in her lifetime but subsequently recognized in the twentieth century. As a teenager, encouraged by her stepfather, still-life painter Jacob Marell, Merian began painting the insect and plant specimens that she collected. One of the three books published during her lifetime, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food, 1679), features detailed observations and illustrations of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar. Written in German, it found popularity among fashionable elites but was largely ignored by the scientific community, the official language of which was still Latin. In 1690, Merian settled in Amsterdam and achieved success as a flower and animal painter. From there, she undertook a perilous journey to Surinam, in South America, to observe and document the local flora and fauna, remaining in the country from 1699 to 1701. The results of her research, the first scientific study on Surinam, were published as Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), which contains engravings on parchment of insects and plants, with a description of each species and its habitat. Merian’s books and engravings are at once artistic achievements and meticulous documents of entomological research, appearing decades before Linnaeus’ landmark Systema Naturae (1735), which set the standard for zoological classification.