Lifelong Learning Programme

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Artists - ArtWorks

Name of the Artist / Artwork:

Maria Sibylla Merian

Country: Germany
Century: 1600 - The 17th Century
Artist / Artwork Description:

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was not only artist but also researcher and took journeys to the New World where she came into touch with a totally different flora and fauna. Lateron she used the material and sketches taken on these journeys to manifest them in her engravings and paintings of plants, flowers and foremost insects.

Synthetic Chronology:

1647 born in Frankfurt/Main
1665 wedding with engraver Andreas Graff
1670 the family moves to Nuremberg
trade with materials for painting
1681 Frankfurt
1685 Netherlans (Labadisten, religious sekte)
1699 – 1701 journey to Surinam (gets Malaria)
1717 she dies in Amsterdam

The Context:

Maria Sibylla Merian is part of the famous Merian family, known as the producers of “Topografien” a big collection of views of european citys. Her father, the engraver, publisher, illustrator und cartographer Matthäus Merian was a worldfamous man due to his masterpiece "Topographia Germaniae".

M.S. Merian was an artist, naturalist, entrepreneur, teacher, housewife and mother as well.
Though she was a woman her stepfather trained her as an engraver und she herself breeded, observed and made detailed studies of the different development-stages of the metamorphosis of worms, caterpillars, grubs and moths. She even learned the Latin language.
After the divorce from her husband she made a two years expedition together with one of her daughters to the dutch colony of Surinam. She collected and painted insects in the New World tropics and after the return to Amsterdam she published the standard book "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium". Before her journey to Surinam-journey she had published "Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung" (caterpillars miraculous transformation and curious food). She connected art and science. Today she is accepted as the founder of the German entomology.

The former German 500 DM-banknote and 40-Pfennig- stamp show her portrait.
By the Swedish founder of the modern systematic of biology (the natural scientist Karl von Linné) she was classified as a “immortal person” and he called a moth “Tinea Merianella”, as a sign for her international acceptance.


The period of baroque art perpetuated the interest in exploring the surrounding reality of the world as it was practiced already during renaissance period. Animals and plants were no longer symbols and attributes for religious art, they got some kind of independence (as for example in form of “still-lifes” that became an independent, important element of the art).

National Comparative:

The naturalistic painting and the emancipation of the workaday-life is documented in genre paintings and naturalistic still-lifes. S.M. Merians father had published pictures of flowers “Florilegium renovatum”. These drawings and illustrations she used as a pattern for embroidery that she was taught in.
Maybe she got to knew even the Frankfurter painter Georg Flegel as well as dutch still-life-painters.

Artistic Analysis:

The importance of the work of m.S.Merian is the combination of science and art. M.S.Merian was one of the first explorers who observed and painted insects systematically and she noticed the metamorphoses of these insects.
The language of science was Latin, therefore she had to learn the Latin Language to get acceptance.
New too, were journeys for exploring, as she does to Surinam with her daughter. There she continued her work by exploring the metamorphosis of the insects. The results of exploration she documented in her artworks and she published several books.
Her artwork was admired by her contemporaries, then there came a period she was forgotten, but today her art is accepted as very important.
Many biographies and even novels are published, expositions are organized, schools take her name, concerts are organized to her honour and even a ship is called M.S.Merian.

Transnational Comparative Analysis:

The dutch still-lifes of the baroque (for example the Utrechter painting-school) maybe have had influenced the artwork of M.S.Merian.

Development of the artist's work through the years:

Between 1675 –1680 :
“Blumenbuch”, three sequiturs. Publishing patterns with flower – motives for embroidery. Three series of each twelve engravings.
1670 und 1674:
“book of the caterpillars” , three parts that were published after her death. Each book contained appr. 50 engravings, labeled by text.
Besides the illustration of her studies of developmental stages of butterflies from egg over caterpillar and nymph to the flying insect and the knowledge of corresponding food-plants it was her concern to correct the belief that insects derive from “debris” (breed of devil). Her artwork demonstrates her artistical power as well as her scientific knowledge and ambitious results of research.
»Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensis«
These “Metamosphosis” she brought from her Surinam-journey. It consists of:
- Paintings of different butterflies and plants (on parchment)
- Dissected butterflies, crocodiles, iguanas, snakes, turtles and dried plants
Her work about “Surinam” was summarized in a book with 60 large-sized plates.
In 1717, on her day of death, the russian tzar Peter the Great acquires a comprehensive loose-leafe-collection consisting of paintings on parchment in a portfolio. The personal physician acquires this study-book for himself and in 1718 this comprehensive masterpiece got part of the St. Petersburg-Merian-Collections.


Nobody of the German artists of this century shows such an outstanding change from the dependence by patronage to independence in arts, research and entrepreneurship. Important for the choice was also that she was a woman that made her way of emanzipation.


Klier von Prestel, M. (2000). Maria Sibylla Merian - New Book of Flowers (Prestel Minis).
Geus, A. (Hrsg.).(1991). Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung. Kalender, broschiert.
Maria Sibylla Merian (2003). Neues Blumenbuch Insel-Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main.
Wettengl von Hatje, K. (Hrsg.) (1998). Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647 –1717, Artist and Naturalist. - 65k

under this internet-address you can find a comprehensive bibliography about Maria Sibylla Merian:

Related Material:

Image available

File name: 70_Anna_Maria_Sibylla_Merian-50DM.jpg

Description of the material:

image, jpg 278 × 331 Pixel, 26 KB,

Contextualisation Of the source:

This is just the portrait of the artist Maria Sibylla Merian that could be found on the former 500 DM- banknote (Germany).

Interpretation of the source:

To get some imagination of what the famous artist looked like this illustration (engraving) was used.

File name: 70_Merian-1.jpg

Description of the material:

813 × 1.018 Pixel, 278 KB, image/jpeg

Contextualisation Of the source:

The plate belongs to the above mentioned collection, which was the real masterpiece of Maria Sibylla Merian.

Interpretation of the source:

The plate shows both the extreme artistry and the scientific accuracy Maria Sibylla spent on her work. As typical for her paintings and engravings within this illustration you can find the different stages of the butterfly (egg, caterpillar, nymph) and several other animals (lizard / iguana / fly). Even the fruit they feed from is demonstrated in the painting.

File name: 70_Merian-2.jpg

Description of the material:

image jpg 623 × 850 pixels, 347 KB

Contextualisation Of the source:

Plate from ''Erucarum Ortus'' (1679-1717)

Comments about this Artist/ArtWork

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