Besides creating visual images of great beauty, Maria Sibylla Merian made observations that revolutionized both botany and zoology. This extraordinary artist-scientist was born in Frankfurt. Her father, Matthaeus Merian the Elder, was a Swiss printmaker and publisher who died when she was three. One year later her mother married Jacob Marell, a Flemish flower painter and one of Merian’s first teachers.
From early childhood, Merian was interested in drawing the animals and plants she saw around her. In 1670, five years after her marriage to the painter Johann Andreas Graff, the family moved to Nuremberg, where Merian published her first illustrated books. In preparation for a catalogue of European moths, butterflies, and other insects, Merian collected, raised, and observed the living insects, rather than working from preserved specimens, as was the norm.
In 1685, Merian left Nuremburg and her husband, from whom she was later divorced, to live with her two daughters and her widowed mother in the Dutch province of West Friesland. After her mother’s death, Merian returned to Amsterdam. Eight years later, at the age of fifty-two, Merian took the astonishing step of embarking—with her younger daughter, but no male companion—on a dangerous, three month trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America. Having seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, Merian wanted to study them within their natural habitat. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna. Forced home by malaria, Merian published her most significant book in 1705. The lavishly illustrated Insects of Suriname
established her international reputation. A second, posthumous, edition was published under the title Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Suriname
daughter of Mathaeus Merian the Elder
stepdaughter and student of Jacob Marrel
mother of Dorothea Merian
wife of Johann Andreas Graff
friend of Anna Maria van Schurman