Maria Merian: the Caterpillar lover

Nicholas Laughlin tells the curious tale of how a middle-aged 17th-century German housewife and mother travelled to the tropics...

  • Cassava plant with sphinx moth and tree boa, by Merian, from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. Photograph courtesy the Centre for Retrospective Digitization, Göttingen
  • Heliconia and sweet potato plant with wasps and butterflies, by Merian. Photograph courtesy the Centre for Retrospective Digitization, Göttingen
  • Merian's `Palisade tree with moths'. Photograph courtesy the Centre for Retrospective Digitization, Göttingen
  • Engraving after a portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian by her son-in-law, Georg Gsell. Photograph courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries

In September 1699, after a two-month Atlantic crossing, a Dutch ship approached the north-eastern shoulder of South America. Skirting the coast, an expanse of mud-flat and mangrove, the vessel turned into the Suriname River. Its final port was nine miles upstream: the small town of Paramaribo, with its neat white houses, canals, and streets paved with crushed seashells.

For a century, Dutch and English adventurers had wrangled over this wild coast, but in 1667 the Netherlands gave up its North American colony of New Amsterdam – soon renamed New York by the English – to keep this mostly uncharted but fertile patch of South America. Now Suriname was a colony of about a thousand European settlers and ten times as many African slaves, whose backbreaking labour kept Amsterdam supplied with exotic delights like sugar and tobacco.

As the passengers of our ship disembarked, they may have been reassured by glimpses of efficient Dutch town planning. Some were plantation owners, others traders. But two passengers stood apart: a middle-aged woman and her grown daughter, travelling unaccompanied. They were not here to join relatives, or transact any business their fellow passengers could comprehend; they were here to look for caterpillars.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647, into a family of artist-publishers. Her father was an engraver who specialised in illustrated works of history and science. He died when his daughter was three, but the books he left behind aroused her imagination. A year later, Merian’s mother remarried. The new husband was a still-life painter, and he soon realised his young stepdaughter had both talent and a fierce desire to be an artist. He taught her the fundamentals of painting and drawing, and essential skills like preparing pigments and plate-engraving.

But as her artistic education advanced, Merian developed another obsession, an unlikely one: insects. Frankfurt was a centre for silk production, and her uncle worked in the trade. A silkworm isn’t an obvious pet for a young girl, but Merian was fascinated by the creature’s mysterious transformation from worm into moth. Soon she was collecting caterpillars from nearby gardens and rearing them indoors, in paper cones. And she read whatever entomology texts she could find.

Insects, in medieval Europe, were considered the devil’s creatures, associated with decay and filth. Aristotle had believed they were born from “spontaneous generation” – that they wriggled, fully formed, from mud or rotting flesh – and for centuries this theory went unchallenged. The different stages in an insect’s life-cycle – larva, pupa, adult – were thought to be entirely separate creatures.

But in the early 17th century, scientists began to question the old ideas. Newly invented microscopes made it possible to scrutinise these tiny beasts’ anatomies. The Dutchmen Johannes Goedaert and Jan Swammerdam reported that insects actually came from minute eggs, and lived through a complex and gradual metamorphosis. Merian knew their books, and their insistence on closely recorded observation. As her caterpillars grew and changed, she made dozens of sketches, paying special attention to the plant that was each species’ sole diet.

She herself was growing and changing. In 1665 she married her stepfather’s apprentice; they moved to Nuremberg, and had two daughters. She painted botanical studies for wealthy clients, and published three volumes of flower pictures. And finally Merian put her creative skills at the service of her scientific interests. In 1679 she published The Wonderful Transformation and Singular Plant Nourishment of Caterpillars – her Raupenbuch, for short – recording the life-cycles of 50 butterflies and moths.
The Raupenbuch made her reputation among natural historians, but Merian’s personal life was entering its own metamorphosis. First her stepfather died, provoking a family lawsuit. Then she left her husband and moved with her daughters to the Netherlands, to a religious commune. The Labadists believed in shared possessions and fasting, but they also encouraged scientific study, and the community had its own laboratory. They even sent missionaries out to Suriname. The mission failed, but the brethren returned with wondrous specimens of tropical plants and animals.

When communal life grew stale, Merian moved again, this time to Amsterdam, re-taking her maiden name. The city was a centre of world trade, wealthy and hungry for the exotic, and many prominent citizens kept private botanical gardens and curiosity cabinets. The women of Amsterdam were astonishingly liberated. Merian fitted in at once, and a stream of commissions flowed her way. She had access to the latest books, to fine scientific collections.

But the South American insects she encountered frustrated as much as they thrilled her. They were dead, mounted on pins, and no one knew anything about their life cycle. What did they eat, what landscape formed their habitat, what did they metamorphose from or to?

She was 52, rather advanced in years for the time. The transatlantic journey was perilous, the climate of Suriname insalubrious. But her curiosity proved too strong to suppress. She sold most of her possessions, packed her brushes and pigments, and with her unmarried daughter Dorothea for a research assistant, Maria Sibylla Merian sailed off.
As she set up house in Paramaribo, she noticed dozens of strange insects in the vegetation outside and even indoors, literally crawling from the woodwork. When the rainy season came, “The water rose rather steeply in front of the garden,” Merian wrote, “so that many frogs lay on the grass.” Excursions to the market revealed a bounty of outlandish fruit, like the banana, which “has a pleasant flavour like apples in Holland; and is good both cooked and raw.”

She collected insects of all kinds and brought them home to raise in boxes and pots. As word spread across the town of this eccentric woman with a fondness for “worms”, African slaves and Amerindian servants turned up with specimens and bits of local lore. Paramaribo’s European residents were less sympathetic.

There were impossibly many unfamiliar species on her doorstep – how many more further afield? She planned forays into neighbouring plantations and the surrounding rainforest. Rough terrain today; imagine negotiating it with no DEET or GPS device, while swathed in 17th-century petticoats and corsets. Imagine the shock of the equatorial temperature. Imagine how this lush alien landscape appeared to someone accustomed to Holland’s orderly fields: roiling, fermenting with life.

She meant to stay five years. “The heat treated me poorly,” she later wrote, “and I was compelled to return home earlier.” After two years in Suriname, Merian was struck with severe fever, perhaps malaria. Reluctantly, she and Dorothea gathered their notes and specimens – insects on pins, reptiles in jars of brandy – and started the journey home.
In 1705, four years after her return to Amsterdam, Merian published her magnum opus, a giant book called Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium – The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. It was a work of both science and exquisite art, with 60 hand-coloured plates, engraved from her original watercolours, and extensive commentary on each species.

Her innovative organising principle was ecological. She did not present her specimens isolated on a white page. Instead, each painting depicts a plant species together with the insects and other creatures it fed. A golden pineapple is orbited by butterflies, while tiny red beetles sport among its spiky leaves. A cassava plant, its tubers immodestly exposed, hosts a jaunty striped caterpillar, while a serpent coils about its stalk. The images almost squirm with life. Some of them resemble dramatic tableaux. In one action-packed painting, two snakes posed acrobatically on a purslane branch hiss at each other in fury, while a terrified frog sprawls on the earth beneath. In the most extraordinary of the images, a guava tree is the setting for a scene like a Hieronymus Bosch painting: a battle between armies of ants and spiders, with a goliath tarantula sinking its fangs into the breast of a pinioned hummingbird.

Her dramatic compositions arrest the viewer, but they also hint at the immense biodiversity of the humid tropics, the interconnections among all these species, and nature’s greedy press.

Merian portrayed these more vividly than any natural history artist before her – in part because she was more of an artist than other natural historians. Her images are faithful to her observations (though she sometimes fudged details of animal behaviour she had only heard of, rather than seen), but they are also gorgeous works of art, drawing on her long experience of still-life painting. An extravagance of curlicues – in one creature’s tail, another’s tongue, or the tendrils of a vine – is a characteristic decorative touch, suggesting movement and tension.

Only a couple hundred copies of Merian’s Metamorphosis were printed, but collectors snapped them up. Reptiles and amphibians were appended to later editions. She continued to work from the specimens she had brought to Amsterdam, but was slowed down by recurring fevers, then a stroke. She died in the untropical month of January 1717, leaving her carefully trained daughters to secure her legacy.

Eighteenth-century naturalists treasured Merian’s books. But some Victorian scientists were scornful of her work; they thought her images too fanciful, and mistrusted the observations of this “amateur”. To their inconvenient surprise, new discoveries in the forests of South America often confirmed what she had reported, and 20th-century researchers were grateful for the indigenous knowledge she preserved in her notes. Today six plants, two beetles, and nine butterflies are named for her.

Still, the pictures themselves, these artfully consilient images of life’s untiring cycle, are Merian’s lasting glory. Three hundred years on, her hungry creatures leap from the page, hot and hurried – belying their creator’s own cool and painstaking patience.

The exhibition Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science ran at the Museum Het Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2008.