I’ve been wanting to write about this book, having read it twice. It’s Kim Todd’s biography of Maria Sibylla Merian.
I was an adult in graduate school before I learned that there were women artists besides Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe. How was it possible that I could come of age in the 1970s and 80s and not know that women have been making art as long as men have? Fury burned within for a few months, a righteous anger that I could have been inspired by these women as a child, if only their stories had been pulled from obscurity.
There is no doubt that Merian was a remarkable woman. Born into a large family of publishers in 1647, her early childhood was spent around printing presses and artisans in Frankfurt, Germany. After her father died, Maria’s mother married a painter. Women were forbidden to paint with oils, so Maria learned watercolors from her stepfather. She also learned engraving, probably by staying in touch with her brothers at the printing business. The stepfather specialized in floral paintings, and Maria was sent out to find insects to add to these compositions. She began studying them, especially butterflies. This young girl was one of the first Europeans to study and observe metamorphosis, the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or moth. This would be her life’s work.
Maria married young, possibly to help her family’s financial situation. Her husband, a painter, moved them to Nuremburg–a city filled with artists and craftsmen. Shouldering the responsibility or running a household and caring for a young daughter, she found time to raise caterpillars in the kitchen, continue her insect studies, and teach watercolor painting to young ladies. At their urging, she published her first book of flowers in 1675. A second daughter was born, and a book of caterpillars was published. Merian began to correspond with other naturalists.
Religion played an important role in Merian’s world, since she lived not long after the Protestant Reformation and subsequent wars that tore through Europe. Her family was Calvinist, stricter than Lutherans. When her marriage to the painter faltered, Merian and her daughters joined her brother at a religious commune in Holland. Her husband followed, but she refused to reconcile with him and there is no evidence that they ever saw each other again. He later filed for divorce. Members of the sect attempted to set up a colony in Surinam with the intention of converting the natives and finding land uncorrupted by Europeans. They struggled, but also sent back specimens to Holland. Merian would have seen tropical butterflies and moths. The commune was disbanded after illness swept through and Merian moved to Amsterdam. She built a new life as a naturalist and illustrator, with a growing list of patrons and correspondents. She heard of the discoveries being made in natural science and examined cabinets of curiosities. The city was a trade center and ships from all over the world tied up at the Amsterdam docks. After eight years there, Maria Sibylla Merian had another book in mind. Her children were grown and she was financially independent. Nothing held her back.
In 1699, at the age of 52, Merian took ship for Surinam. It was a scientific voyage. She and her daughter Dorothea settled in Paramaibo, and observations and drawing began immediately. Merian’s work changed, became lusher and more colorful, influenced by the fecund growth of the jungle. Collecting was difficult. At first she explored plantations, but then pushed into the nearly impenetrable forest. She asked questions of the natives, and listened as they told her how the animals lived. So much life was up in the canopy. It was of utmost importance to study insects in their habitat.
Yellow fever and malaria struck. She fought, but at last her weakened body told her to go home. In 1701, she returned to Amsterdam with a large collection of specimens and immediately plunged into work on books. Her first Surinam book was published in 1705, and more books came after. Her daughters followed in her footsteps; the eldest traveling to Surinam with her husband and painting watercolors, the youngest engraving plates of her mother’s paintings.
Merian died in 1717, and her books and paintings influenced natural scientists for years to come. The pendulum swung, though, and by the 1830s her work was discredited. She was not a formally trained scientist. She was a woman. The world moved on. In the 1970s, works collected by Peter the Great surfaced in Russia, and were reprinted. Merian’s paintings and observations made their way into museums and are now seen for the incredible documents they are. Todd writes: “…it’s hard to think of anyone in any age who led a life as full as Merian. The willpower needed to forge a path where none existed before must have been overwhelming. She gave a nod to expectations, but then sailed straight through them as though they were ripples and not tidal waves. Although I want her contributions to science to be recognized, I think her biggest gift was the way that she lived. Any life, of course, is messy, filled with rationalizations, contradictions, episodes best tucked away out of sight. But there is a boldness at the heart that won’t be chipped away.”
I think of Merian often–when I see butterflies in the field, when I am about my own close observations of this or that life form, when I am climbing a trail in the mountains. This is my year of being 52, and I wonder where I shall set sail to? It occurs to me that I already have.
Now as winter approaches, I feel as if I am embarking yet again. I have three months to explore, having been furloughed due to lack of funds. Time to be a naturalist and paint with watercolors. I’ve started a creative project that I’ve always dreamed of, and am curious to see where it will take me. Life is messy. Unpredictable. We are given the opportunity to start over more than once, to build on the skills and experiences we have had up till now. To be bold at heart.
Hoist the sails!