The original ‘Spider Woman’

     In 1600s Europe insects were commonly known as the “beasts of the devil,” and most people tried to ignore them whenever possible.  But from a very early age, Maria Merian (1647-1717), born in Frankfurt, Germany, was fascinated by insects.  Maria’s stepfather, still life painter Jacob Marrel, encouraged her to draw and paint.  At 13 she painted her first picture of insects and plants using specimens she had collected. 

     In 1665 Maria married Marrell’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff.  Two years later she was the mother of a little girl, and the family moved to Nuremberg, where Maria contained to paint.  She worked on linen and parchment, eventually publishing several volumes of handpainted flower engravings intended for use as embroidery patterns.  She also took on students, which helped the family financially and increased their social standing.  This gave her access to the beautiful gardens maintained by wealthy citizens, where she could study plants and insects.

     At that time scientists believed insects came from “spontaneous generation of rotting mud.”  The Catholic Church disagreed, believing insects had come about during the Creation.  Ignoring both of these opinions, Marie studied what really happened when caterpillars became butterflies.  She sketched and painted the transformations along with the details of chrysalises and plants that the insects fed on.   

Guava with Arthropods

      This book of sketches became her first book, “Neues Blumenbuch” (New Book of Flowers), published 1675.  In 1678 she had another daughter, and in 1679 she published another book titled (English translation) “The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food.” 

      Maria was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly, contrary to the way most scientists worked at the time.  She described the life cycles of 186 insect species, documenting for the first time the process of metamorphosis from the caterpillar to the butterfly.  Unfortunately, her work was largely ignored by scientists because at that time Latin was considered the official language of science, and Maria wrote in German.

     In 1681 the Graff family returned to Frankfurt to handle Jacob Marrell’s estate, which involved numerous family lawsuits over financial issues.  Apparently it was an extremely trying time for Maria.  After the legal problems were finally resolved in 1685, she dumped her husband, took her daughters and mother, and joined a religious sect, the Labdists, who didn’t believe in marriage or worldly goods.  (One can only wonder what turned her off marriage so thoroughly!)   When her mother died five years later, Maria moved to Amsterdam, where her pioneering work finally attracted the attention of scientists.

     In 1699, the city of Amsterdam sponsored Maria to travel to Surinam with her younger daughter.  Maria’s older daughter already lived there with her husband, a merchant, so Maria had a base of operations from which to collect and study insects and plant life.  She was thrilled at the chance to document new and exotic things and immediately began sketching and painting the insects, animals and plant life around the colony. 

     Her pioneering work became widely known.   Her patient observation and eye for detail let her produce incredibly accurate engravings and paintings of things which many scientists had never seen before.  She created the first classification for insects that have chrysalises and the names she gave many creatures eventually worked their way into common and scientific usage.  For example, the German name for bird spider (Vogelspinne-mygalomorphae) probably originated from one of her Surinam engravings that shows a large spider that has just captured a bird.  Today, there is no known record of this type of spider hunting birds, but it is possible that Maria observed such a scene and recorded it.      

     In 1701, malaria forced her to return to the Netherlands, where she made money by selling specimens she had collected.  In 1705 her “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium”, with engravings based on her watercolors, was published.  It was translated into several languages, and is considered one of the finest works of botanical illustration ever created. 

     In 1715 Maria was partially paralyzed by a stroke.  Although the stroke handicapped her, she continued to work as much as possible.  Unfortunately, a later registry lists her as a pauper, and she died in poverty. After Maria’s death, her youngest daughter, Dorothea, published a last collection of her mother’s work.

     In the latter part of the 20th century Maria Merian’s work was rediscovered and recognized.  Her portrait has appeared on German money and stamps, and many schools are named after her.  In 2005, a research vessel named “Maria S. Merian” was launched at Warnemunde, Germany.

     Merian’s drawings and paintings of plants, snakes, spiders, iguanas and tropical beetles are even now collected all over the world.  Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today, and some of the names she gave to plants have become part of common usage in Europe.

cc Source: Art-to-Art Palette Journal/Paint Box Section print edition

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed