I've talked about Mary Delany and Rachel Ruysch here before. But I really ought to have blogged about Maria Sibyalla Merian (1647-1717) by now. Last night, I pulled down my copy of Amazing Rare Things from my bookshelf. It's one of my favourite books and it's an illustration by Merian that adorns the cover.
Merian wasn't just an artist, but a naturalist with a pioneering spirit. Specimen samples weren't enough to sate her appetite and at the age of fifty-two, in 1699, she went on expedition to Surinam to study its insect inhabitants, the results of which were published in her 1705 book Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.
The colony was relatively new and Merian, accompanied by her daughter, went without patronage. Conditions were harsh and the heat unbearable. But her enthusiasm is infectious. I love this passage, quoted in Amazing Rare Things:
"One day I wandered far out into the wilderness... I took this caterpillar home with me and it rapidly changed into a pale wood-coloured chrysalis, like the one lying here on the twig; two weeks later, towards the end of January 1700, this most beautiful butterfly emerged, looking like polished silver overlaid with the loveliest ultramarine, green and purple, and indescribably beautiful; it's beauty cannot possibly be rendered with the paint-brush."
I feel like this wonder is conveyed through her plates... but there's also vanitas, a darkness, emptiness and decay in her plates, perhaps influenced by cabinets of curiosities or her contemporary paintings. She arranged caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly on the same tableau, placing them on the plants that she considered to be their food. But her awe is palpable and, even in the darkness, there is wonder.
Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam - Katharina Schmidt-Loske
Amazing Rare Things - David Attenborough
Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis - Kim Todd
Insects and Flowers: The Art of Maria Sibylla Merian - David Brafman and Stephanie Schrader
1. Portrait of Merian by de Bâle, via | 2. Passion flower plant and flat-legged bug, (c. 1701-5) - Maria Sibylla Merian, via | 3. Taschen