Druivenblossem [De Europische insecten] , Merian, Maria Sibylla, 1647-1717 , Engraving, hand-colored ,1730. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.
In 1699 after conducting many studies of European moths and butterflies, artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) traveled to Surinam to study insect metamorphosis. You may already be familiar with her paintings of insects
and plants. Merian was more than an adventurous artist and divorcée. She was a dedicated independent scholar who made significant contributions to biology and the not-yet-established field of ecology.
The complete extent of Merian’s contributions are not obvious by looking at her images. One can only begin to fully appreciate the value of her work by reading the text accompanying these images or by learning from someone who has read Merian’s descriptions, such as biology professor Kay Etheridge. According to Dr. Etheridge, Merian is known more for her art than for her scholarly achievements in part because her texts were written in German or Dutch and her written observations are not readily available in English (Etheridge, 2010). The only full English translation of her famous Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium is a facsimile edition that is viewable in only about 20 libraries worldwide (Etheridge, 2011).
Today we have the opportunity to learn from Dr. Etheridge who is currently preparing for a two-day symposium about Maria Sibylla Merian at the University of Amsterdam (May 26-27, 2014). The symposium, Exploring Maria Sibylla Merian, will feature panels of invited scholars who will discuss their research about Merian’s life and her contributions to art and science.
Please join me in welcoming Dr. Kay Etheridge!
ArtPlantae: The symposium about Maria Sibylla Merian sounds absolutely wonderful. How did this event come together?
Kay Etheridge: I co-authored a paper book chapter with a Dutch colleague, Florence Pieters, and we were giving a presentation about Merian’s influence on Mark Catesby (1683-1749) at a symposium about Catesby’s work. While at lunch we talked about what a similar symposium about Merian might look like. We discussed the idea with people at the University of Amsterdam, one thing led to another and this is where the symposium will be held. It is a perfect venue because Merian spent much of her life in Amsterdam, and the University has several of her books in their special collections.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about Merian. The one goal of the symposium is to have scholars gather to discuss what we really know about her.
AP: How many Merian scholars are there?
KE: There aren’t that many. Probably less than one dozen who focus primarily on Merian, although many scholars do study her work to varying degrees. Then there are others who work on Merian, just not exclusively. There will be 10 scholars speaking at the symposium. They include an entomology historian, various science and art historians including a printing expert who discovered a letter by Merian, and a couple who is making a film about Merian. Dutch artist Joos van de Plas will also be at the symposium. Joos is fascinated by metamorphosis and became captivated by Merian’s work. She went to the insect collection in the Wiesbaden Museum, Germany, to study what may very well contain some of Merian’s insects. She matched a number of insect specimens to the engraved images in Merian’s book on Surinam insects and then printed a book of museum overlays.
My own work is an examination of the biology behind Merian’s work, something that I feel has been overlooked. For example, she conducted many of the earliest insect food-choice studies and was the first to look at plant-insect relationships in any detail.
AP: I have seen one exhibition about Merian’s life and the focus was on her interesting life story, her art and her trip to Surinam. In your articles, you write about her many contributions to biology — such as being the first to “elucidate through word and art what we now think of as food chains and interactions within ecological communities” (Etheridge 2010, p. 21). You also mention that some historians tend to deny her the title of “scholar” and refer to her more often as “artist”, “housewife” and “mother”. Why do you think this type of labeling persists given our current understanding about her contributions to science?
KE: I think that those who do not call Merian a scholar may define a “scholar” as someone who has university training. Many historians, however, do think of Merian as being a scholar. I believe that as people learn more about her work, her prominence in the history of science will increase.
AP: In the essay Maria Sibylla Merian: The First Ecologist? you mention that Merian was influenced by Hoefnagel and that many artists and naturalists who came after her were influenced by her art and observations. Tracing the influence of Merian’s work sounds like it would be very difficult. How do you conduct such an investigation?
KE: Other scholars have posed various influences on Merian, but my interest is in who she influenced, that is, those who came after her. If you know who had access to her work and then you see how their compositions mirror hers, the connections are obvious. Before Merian’s books, plants and animals were usually depicted separated; she was absolutely the first to put together related organisms in an “ecological” composition. We now think of this as standard, but Merian set that standard in 1679 with her first book on European insects and their plant hosts.
AP: You’ve completed extensive research about Merian’s life and work. What would you like the public to understand about Merian? How can the artists, naturalists and educators reading this interview contribute to this effort?
KE: By recognizing that people do not fully understand the scientific context behind Merian’s images and that people need to read the text.
I am currently on sabbatical and working on the English translation of Merian’s butterfly books, completed by my colleague, Michael Ritterson. My book will include the first English translation of Merian’s initial work on European insects
(Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen–Nahrung, 1679), her accompanying images, and commentary on her numerous formative contributions to natural history.
Her most imitated invention was an “ecological” composition in which the life cycle of an insect was arrayed around a plant that served as food for the caterpillar. As mentioned above, prior to Merian’s Raupen books animal and plant images were segregated, usually in separate volumes. To date most scholarship on Merian has emphasized her fascinating life story or her artwork, and the science content of her books has not been examined in depth; her caterpillar books have been particularly neglected. Reasons for this omission will be addressed in my book, but one factor may be that no English translation of the Raupen books has been published.
The title of my book will be Wonderous Transformation: Maria Sibylla Merian’s Catepillar Book.
Readers, do you have a question for Kay about her research or the upcoming symposium? Write your comments and questions below.
Etheridge, Kay. 2010. Maria Sibylla Merian and the metamorphosis of natural history. Endeavour. 35(1): 15-21
Etheridge, Kay. 2011. In V. Molinari and D. Andreolle, Editors. Women and Science, 17th Century to Present: Pioneers, Activists, and Protagonists. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.
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