Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Maria Sibylla Merian

She would have celebrated her 366th birthday today.  Maria Sibylla Merian (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) was a Swiss naturalist and scientific illustrator who studied plants and insects and painted them in great detail. Her careful observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly make her a significant, albeit not well-known, contributor to entomology.

Merian worked as a botanic artist. She published three collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677, and 1680. Afterward she studied insects, keeping her own live specimens, and made drawings showing insect metamorphosis, in which all life stages of the insect (egg, larva, pupa, and adult) were depicted in the same drawing.
In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called "beasts of the devil." As a consequence of their reputation, the metamorphosis of these animals was largely unknown. Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were "born of mud" by spontaneous generation.

The pursuit of her work in Suriname was an unusual endeavour, especially for a woman. In general, only men received royal or government funding to travel in the colonies to find new species of plants and animals, make collections and to work there, or to settle. Scientific expeditions at this period of time were not common, and Merian's unofficial, self-funded expedition raised many eyebrows. She succeeded, however, in discovering a whole range of previously unknown animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Merian spent time studying and classifying her findings and described them in great detail. Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today. She used Native American names to refer to the plants, which became used in Europe:

Her drawings of plants, frogs, snakes, spiders, iguanas, and tropical beetles are still collected today by amateurs all over the world. The German word Vogelspinnemygalomorphae, translated literally as bird spider—probably has its origins in an engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian. The engraving, created from sketches drawn in Surinam, shows a large spider who had just captured a bird. In the same engraving and accompanying text Merian was the first European to describe both army ants and leaf cutter ants as well as their effect on other organisms.
Shortly before Merian's death her work was seen in Amsterdam by Peter the Great. After her death he acquired a significant number of her paintings which to this day are kept in academic collections in St. Petersburg.

Patti Friday, Photojourno, reporting from inside 'The Art Dept.' at the international 'Embassy of Ideas'.
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