Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
Art by Claire DeWilde (website)
Born into a creative family, Maria began her artistic training as a young girl and eventually married the painter Johann Andreas Graff. While most women in Maria’s position funneled their creativity into the husband’s career by acting as his assistant, Maria maintained an independent career as a painter and teacher. In her thirties, Maria published The New Book of Flowers, a set of 36 engravings meant to serve as a model book for other artists, and The Caterpillar Book, which documented the life stages of moths and butterflies.
Maria and Johann divorced in 1692 after several years of living apart. Maria and her two daughters set up a studio in Amsterdam where they produced botanical and entomological artwork. In 1699, Maria and her daughter Dorothea traveled to Suriname. For two years the women studied the native insects and plants of Suriname, often preserving the Native American names and uses. In 1701, the two women returned to the Netherlands and began work on The Insects of Suriname which was published in 1705.
Maria died in 1717. After her death, Dorothea ensured the continuing circulation of Maria’s work by publishing new and expanded editions of her books. Maria documented the life cycle of 186 insects in two different countries and she remains one of the most important figures in the history of entomology.
If you like Maria Sibylla Merian, you should also check out Jane Colden.