Maria Merian’s Butterflies Back

Maria Merian’s Butterflies is a luxury collection of her paintings of insects and plants of Suriname, acquired by George III, which will immediately captivate both the art lover and the student of natural history. It tells the story of a very remarkable woman. She is represented in an engraving by Jacobus Houbraken (1698-1780), published in the year of her death 1717. With a worn but determined expression, she is seated amongst objects representing her scientific interests with one hand elegantly pointing to a flowering plant above which hovers a butterfly, and the other to herself as the artist responsible.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt and grew up in an artistic circle. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, was a successful print maker and publisher, and died when Maria was three. Her mother re-married, to Jacob Marrel (1613-81), a skilled flower painter and collector. He had been taught by the eminent still-life artist Georg Flegel (1566-1638), and Marrel in turn taught Abraham Mignon (1640-79). As a pupil of her stepfather, Maria produced flower paintings and learnt the practical skills of engraving. From an early age she was fascinated by silk worms, which soon led to her interest in butterflies and moths and their metamorphosis: the study of which was to become her life’s work. From the sixteenth century there had been a growing interest in insects, as witnessed by their inclusion in  seventeenth-century flower and still-life paintings. Two plates (c. 1644-52) from Wenceslas Hollar’s series Diversae Insectorum are displayed, and demonstrate the way in which he arranged the butterflies and insects on a page, though with no concern for their life cycle.

In 1665 Maria Merian married Johann Andreas Graff (1636-1701), one of her stepfather’s apprentices, who was a painter, print maker and publisher. They moved to Nuremberg and had two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria who were both trained as painters and later worked with their mother. Maria Merian published three volumes of flower engravings, the Neues Blumenbuch, to serve as models for embroidery or for amateur painters. Displayed in the exhibition are examples of single flowers such as the very beautiful Provence Rose and the colourful Still Life with Flowers Tied at the Stems which is possibly the work of one of her daughters. In 1679 Graff published Maria’s Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und Sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and their Particular Plant Nourishment) which was followed by a second volume in 1685. Dedicating her work to “students of nature, painters and garden lovers”, she shared her close observation of insects and their metamorphosis with a small group similarly interested in this new field of scientific study, notably Jan Swammerdam, Jan Goedart and Stephen Blankaart.

On the death of her stepfather Jacob Marrel, in 1681, she left her husband and returned to Frankfurt with her daughters to look after her mother. In 1685 the four of them decided to join her stepbrother at Waltha Castle at Wieuwerd in the north of the Dutch United Provinces, the home of the evangelical Labadist community. It had links to the Dutch colony of Suriname, and it is suggested that she developed her interest in South America while staying at Waltha Castle. When the community broke up in 1691, Maria moved with her daughters to Amsterdam. Two watercolours by Hendrik de Winter (1717-1790) of The Town Hall and Weigh House and Damrak and The Dam Square with the West Porch of the New Church and Town Hall (1743) are displayed to represent this thriving city and port.

In Amsterdam Maria continued her research, joining a circle of like-minded scholars and corresponding with the London apothecary James Petiver. She visited a number of gardens and collections of exotic plants such as those cultivated by Agneta Block, who had grown the first pineapple from seed in Europe, and those of the Van Huysum family of flower painters. She also came in contact with Jan Commelin, the Curator of the Hortus Medicus, a collection of both European and exotic plants later to become the Amsterdam Botanical Garden. The frontispiece to Volume 1 of the Horti Medici Amstelodamensis Rariorum (1697) is displayed together with a page from Volume 2 illustrating Apocynum Americ: Frutescens Longissimo Folio, Flore Albo Adorato (1701). Besides plants, she encountered unusual animals such as the Suriname Frog, which incubates its eggs in the skin on its back, a preserved example of which she had seen at Waltha Castle. These exotic specimens convinced her of the need to observe first-hand the life cycle of the lepidoptera and the plants on which they were found and thus to go herself to Suriname, which was famous for its exotic vegetation and unusual insects.

In order to fund the journey, Maria sold the contents of her studio, and set sail with Dorothea in June 1699. From their house in Paramaribo, the capital, they went into the forests to collect specimens which they examined closely with the aid of magnifying glasses. They also sailed up the River Suriname to the Labadist plantation at Providentia, and Marian widened her investigations to include frogs, toads, and reptiles. However, her ill health necessitated their return to Amsterdam where they arrived with their collection of specimens – “alive, pressed or preserved in brandy” – in autumn 1701. Maria’s research culminated in her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensiam, which she published herself and dedicated to all lovers and investigators of nature. In her introductory letter to readers she declared that her aim was “to please both connoisseurs of art and amateur naturalists interested in insects and plants”.

On view is a rare edition of the Metamorphosis with reverse order and counter-proof hand coloured illustrations by Maria herself. It consists of sixty large plates showing the host plant with the caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, accompanied by Maria’s text describing the qualities of the plant and animals depicted. Published in 1705 in Latin and Dutch, this was followed by a French edition in 1726, and a proposal for one in both German and English. Following correspondence with James Petiver, an advertisement concerning the published results of her Suriname researches was placed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1703 to attract subscribers. Beside the publication of the Metamorphosis, she also produced in 1705 with the aid of her daughters at least two further sets of illustrations taken from it, part printed and part hand painted on vellum. The vellum provided a smoother and less absorbent surface on which to paint, allowing for more vibrant and bright colours. As vellum was a more costly material these were a luxury production. One set was acquired by Sir Hans Sloane and is now in the British Museum. The other set came into the possession of George III and the majority of paintings on view in the exhibition belong to it.

The Branch of Pomegranate and Menelaus Blue Morpho Butterfly (Punica Granatum, Morpho Menelau) is a superb example where she paints a sprig of pinkish red flowering pomegranate and a ripe open fruit on which rests a chrysalis while the caterpillar of the Banded Sphinx Moth makes its way along a curving branch. Above is the Blue Morpho Butterfly with its wings spread wide, which Maria described as wonderfully glossy and whose effect she tried to capture using silver paint. The Branded Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha Fasciata) is shown with closed wings alighting on a flower. This exquisitely beautiful painting is also a highly scientific study of nature. Merian’s ability to arrange the various elements across the plates in an aesthetically satisfying way singles out her achievement, for example in the Water Lemon with Snout Moth, Brush-Footed Butterfly lava and Flag-Footed Bug (Passiflora laurifolia-Azamora, Heliconius, Anisoscelis foliaca). Here the plate is taken up by a delicate curving stalk of the Water Lemon (Passiflora laurifolia), illustrating not only the fruit and flower but also associated caterpillars and insects including the Flag-Footed Bug (Aursocelis foliacea). She was fascinated by its fragility and described how its legs are very delicate and fall off when touched no matter how gently. This only goes to show how difficult it was to collect insect specimens in the field for research, but nonetheless she succeeded in including it in this very elegant composition.

The variety and fineness of execution of these paintings is astonishing, as shown in the Ripe Pineapple (Ananas Comosus) combined with the Life Cycle of a Dido Longwing Butterfly  (Philaethria Dido) adapted from Plate 2 of the Metamorphosis. Maria noted that the Dido Longwing “was a very beautiful butterfly” and that wine made from pineapple had “an unsurpassable flavour” [translation quoted from Elizabeth Rücker and William T Stearn, Maria Sibylla Merian in Suriname, London, 1982]. A green and red caterpillar crawls up the pineapple from above a chrysalis, while the delicate green-winged butterfly is shown with its wings open; a second example with wings folded has alighted on the fruit, and further bugs and insects, most minutely observed, inhabit the leaves. Maria was now able to paint a Suriname Toad from life having seen only a preserved specimen in Holland, and she became increasingly interested in the further study of amphibia and reptiles. Included is perhaps one of her best known paintings, Marsh Marigold with the Life Stages of a Frog, based on studies she had made in 1686, where she described froglets, which had not yet lost their tails “like little crocodiles”. In the exhibition is a magnificent painting of a Golden Tegu Lizard, with its black and grey scales, its mouth open, and a curling tail. It is one of the largest lizards in the world and a native of Suriname. A version of Plate 4 in the Metamorphosis shows a branch of Cassava (Manihot esculenta) with a young Golden Tegu (Tupinambis nigro punctatus), with its tongue out and long curling tail, climbing up the branch together with a caterpillar, chrysalis and a White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) butterfly. Merian has again shown her skill in composing a very beautiful and decorative painting but equally a scientific record for the lover of nature. Although she planned a second volume of the Reptiles of Suriname it was never published as she died in 1717. Her daughter Dorothea went to work for Peter the Great taking her mother’s papers with her. These are today in St Petersburg.

The Metamorphosis was reissued during the  eighteenth century, with twelve additional plates based on her drawings, and had an important impact on natural scientists, not least Karl Linnaeus. Merian made a major contribution to the investigation and study of life cycles which began to develop during her lifetime, and a number of species were named after her such as the Split- Banded Owlet Butterfly (Opsiphanes cassina merianae) included in the exhibition. Her paintings also served as models for designers of fabrics and decorators of porcelain.

The Royal Collection Trust is to be congratulated on making available to a wider public these superb and fascinating paintings, all of which can be examined in detail on the Royal Collection website. Kate Heard’s excellent accompanying publication Maria Merian’s Butterflies (2016, Royal Collection Trust) is highly informative and beautifully designed with illustrations of all the paintings exhibited.

Maria Merian’s Butterflies was at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from 15th April to 9th October 2016. It will be at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse from 17th March to 23rd July 2017.