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 Maria Sibylla Merian  (1647 - 1717)

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Lived/Active: Germany      Known for: nature engravings-botany and zoology

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Ad Code: 3
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
An Iguana (Iguana iguana) and a Coral snake (Elapidae micrurus) on a tree stump
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Born to a famous Swiss publisher, Matthaqus Merian the Elder, in Frankfurt, Germany, Maria Sibylla Merian was a talented and well-traveled artist, who became for her engravings of the natural world.  Her works were purchased and displayed by Peter The Great, Tzar of Russia.

Her father died when she was three years old, and her mother married Jacob Marell, a Flemish flower painter who became one of Maria Merian's first teachers.  She had shown talent for drawing and painting from her early childhook, especially plants and animals.  In 1670, Merian was married to Johann Andreas Graff, a painter, and they moved to Nuremberg, where she was able to publish books she had illustrated.  Included was a catalogue of European butterflies and moths and other insects, which she had completed from first-hand observation of live insects she had collected and raised.  This method was pioneering as previous to her work, illustration of that kind had been done with preserved specimens.

In 1685, she left Nuremberg, having divorced her husband, and she lived with her two daughters and widowed mother in West Friesland, a Dutch province.  Upon her mother's death, Merian went to Amsterdam.  Then at the age of fifty-two, in 1699, she did something else that was totally revolutionary.  As a single woman, she took one of her daughters and, without male companions for 'protection', they traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America, a journey that took three months.  The purpose was to study natural habitats of plants and animals.  Once there, she spent several years observing and drawing the subjects she had seen.  Forced to return home because of an outbreak of malaria in the country, she published a "lavishly illustrated" book in 1705.  Titled, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, it "established her international reputation." The book had eighty-two full page illustrations, which were hand-colored engravings done from her watercolors of a smaller scale.  With each image, she had the entire life cycle of each animal and plant, "arranged with great sensitivity so that every picture is both scientifically useful and aesthetically satisfying." She also wrote text for facing pages for each illustration, describing the image and the creatures that use it for food.  A later edition was published posthumously with a different title:  Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam.

Nancy Heller, "Maria Sibylla Merian", Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, p. 28

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