Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple with with insects, Hand colored engraving, 1719
In the late 1980s, my curator-friend Carolyn returned from DC bearing a small gift from the National Museum of Women in the Arts: a two-by-three-inch fridge magnet with an incredibly incisive image of a cockroach hovering over a pineapple, another scampering along a toothed leaf-blade.
She knew I was a sucker for anything about buglife. But who painted these? Even with a magnifier I could barely make out “Maria Sibylla Merian” in miniscule print—not a name I recognized from my art history studies (in which a few male naturalist-artists were given passing attention). And in those pre-internet days, I couldn’t rush to Google where countless images would pop up like weeds. It would take a few years to discover more about this extraordinary naturalist-artist.
I’d later learn that Merian (German, 1647–1717) was one of the first to document life cycles of insects and amphibians—egg to maggot to pupa to fly, squiggly tadpole to acrobatic frog, and the caterpillar-chrysalis-butterfly or moth metamorphosis. All this at a time when most still believed in spontaneous generation. And more, Merian got down and dirty with these critters. Raising them herself, she recorded not only their developmental stages—at times spanning weeks, months, even years—but also grew the larval food plants for each species. For that reason, she could be considered the first ecologist, linking fauna and flora in inter-reliant webs. In her fifty-second year (1699), the artist sailed to Surinam on what was the first independently financed expedition to the “New World.”
Maria Sibylla Merian, Studies of Frogs with spawn and tadpoles, Watercolour and bodycolor on vellum, circa early 1700s
But the main reason I’m drawn to Merian’s arresting imagery is far more personal. And this personal attraction is contained in that word, arresting. As a practicing naturalist-artist myself, I’ve come to realize that Merian not only captured the natural world with the precision of a dedicated field scientist, but she also allowed the natural world to, in turn, captivate her. And this fascination is readily seen in her concern for the most minute morphological detail or life stage, which I know from experience takes ultimate patience to observe, having recently waited half a year to watch an Imperial moth emerge from its pupal case.
Further proof of Merian’s probing artistry is her avoidance of the merely fashionable—like tulips in an arranged still life—to focus attention on such subjects as an ant gnawing on a hapless spider, or a predatory wasp laying eggs in a butterfly caterpillar. Most alluring to me is her enviable touch—the delicately notched antennae, chomped and curled leaves, or gooey-pale larvae casting shadows as they inch along—sometimes all those painted effects on the same single sheet of vellum. She enshrines both lovely and unlovely truths about the natural world with a mystical crispness, propelling them into the realm of art.
Maria Sibylla Merian, Spiders and Ants, Engraving based on watercolor original, Circa early 1700s
But for decades now I’ve also pondered the ordeal of what a woman of her time experienced to produce her biological studies and books of engravings. Not the least of which was being expected to wear long dresses, even in the field. But worse, fear she’d be persecuted as a witch for her curiosity about insects and reptiles, creatures associated with the devil during her lifetime. And she was deeply disturbed by the brutality of slavery in the Dutch colony of Suriname, where she also witnessed first hand the ravaging of the natural world.
Yet in the face of what Merian herself endured, she made real contributions to science, among those is the impressive fact that her work was credited over a hundred times by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae, the classification system that revolutionized biology. Since Merian’s time, there have been many revolutionary discoveries in evolutionary biology. Her work predates but supports Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Turning the tables, I feel fairly certain that she would marvel over the contemporary revelation of hidden coils of DNA in every living cell, a strand I often weave into my own naturalistic images.
Maria Sibylla Merian, Butterfly (egg to adult) and Lizard, Engraving based on watercolor painting, 1705
Cockroach magnet still on my fridge, I now have a yearly ritual of visiting Merian’s masterwork, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (1705), housed at the British Museum’s long, high-ceilinged Enlightenment Gallery where it’s surrounded by cabinets crammed with curiosities. It opens its large ruffled wings to reveal a single image of tantalizing bio-wonders, the page turned every third month. I stand on tiptoes to peer at this shrine to life’s variations.
If not for the vitrine, I’d have to use every ounce of restraint not to turn page after page, feasting on Merian’s book of quiet earthly dramas. On last year’s visit, the volume was opened to a vibrant whiptail lizard and a floating Teucer owl butterfly, the later striking me as if it had just fled its entomological pin, so neatly arrayed were its antennae and wingspread.
It occurred to me then that Merian’s images are natural, and not. For her eye merges imaginative vision with the unfiltered scrutiny of science. It’s the perfect cross-pollination of these two disciplines that speaks to me in her imagery, again and again.
Suzanne Stryk, Spontaneous Generation, 2007, mixed media on paper, 11 x 8 inches
Suzanne Stryk’s place-based series “Notes on the State of Virginia” began its statewide tour at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke (2013) and will close at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (2018). Born in Chicago, she now lives and works in Bristol, Virginia, where she just documented the emergence of an adult mantidfly in her sketchbook. www.suzannestryk.com