Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 -1717)

The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam  (1705 - 1719)

Maria Sibylla Merian was an extraordinary woman for her time.  Equally interested in art and the scientific observation of nature, she pursued both with passion and talent that translated into a number of successful business ventures and a two year exploration of the Dutch Colony of Surinam that resulted in her magnum opus, “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam.)

As the daughter of the renowned Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder, and step-daughter to the still life painter Jacob Marrel, Maria was able to study art and printmaking from an early age.  By the time she was thirteen, she was routinely collecting insects and live specimens, studying them, cultivating their development and recording her observations. Above all else, she was captivated by the seemingly magical process of metamorphosis and enthralled with the beauty of flowering plants. Her empirical practice led her to record discoveries that were at odds with the currently held theory of spontaneous generation. (Spontaneous generation is the belief that “simple life forms” i.e. worms, flies, mice are created from non-living objects i.e. dust, bread, mud etc.  Recipes for creating bees or mice required little more than leaving bread or wheat in a field to “spontaneously generate” the living organism.  This theory was eventually disproved by L. Pasteur in 1862.)

In 1699, as a 52 year old divorced mother of two daughters, Merian embarked upon a two year expedition through the wilds of Surinam.  Although she did not find the tropical climate agreeable and eventually contracted malaria, she was inspired to illustrate the vast array of insect life and the native fruits and flowers she found there.  “The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam” earned the respect of her contemporaries and found a patron in Peter the Great. He not only subscribed to the work, he also purchased her original watercolor drawings and specimens collected and prepared by Merian, that now reside in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia

The scientific community of the 19th century did not credit Merian for being the pioneering entomologist and talented artist she was - due in large part to her flamboyant illustrations and a lack of interest in a scientific classification or nomenclature of the insects and plants she encountered.  Today, Maria Sibylla Merian is regarded as a feminist role model as much for her courage and independence as for the unique and beautiful works she produced.

"Cayman with Snake" hand-colored engraving, c. 1719

Gallery Information
(Un)Natural History


300 W. Superior St.
Chicago, IL 60654

Please contact
Zg Gallery
for further information.

T. 312.654.9900


. Copyright © 2006 Zg Gallery Inc. All rights reserved.