The Queen’s Gallery presents an exhibition which explores the work of the influential German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian. In 1699, Maria Sibylla Merian set sail for Suriname, in South America and undertook a two-year ground breaking study of insects, animals and plants which she encountered. Those studies led to the publication of the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), a book which brought the wonders of Suriname to Europe.
The exhibition tells Merian’s remarkable story through her works in the Royal Collection, acquired by George III. Many of the drawings are luxury versions of the plates of the Metamorphosis, partially printed and partially hand painted onto vellum by the artist herself.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, the daughter of Matthias Merian, a successful printmaker. On her father’s death in 1650, her mother married the still-life artist Jacob Marrel, who taught the young Merian to paint flowers in watercolour. These skills and Maria’s fascination with the insect life cycle led to a career as a writer and artist when she began to publish her images in books, and also made watercolours, for sale to collectors.
In 1691, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam and began to study various collections that featured exotic animals, insects and plants from the Dutch colonies in the East and West Indies. Merian although fascinated by the collections was frustrated that many aspects of the life cycles of insects were unknown. To answer some of these questions, she decided to undertake the potentially perilous journey to Suriname.
In 1699, Merian travelled to Suriname with her younger daughter Dorothea Maria with the intention of spending five years illustrating new species of insects. To finance the mission, she sold a large number of her own paintings. Ultimately , due to ill-health she had to return to Europe in June 1701, but soon after her return she began to work on and produce a lavish book based on her research, the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname).
Walking around the exhibition, it is easy to forget how ground breaking these drawings were at the time. The life cycles of insects were little understood and Merian not only provided notes but produced remarkably attractive naturalistic compositions which often arranged the different life stages in a row, showing caterpillar, chrysalis and adult butterfly on the plants on which they fed.
Although in the present day, Merian is not widely known, her legacy was considerable. Scientists used the drawings to build up a more realistic picture of the natural world and the life cycles of animals, plants and insects. Merian was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly, this approach gave her considerable insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time
This attractive and fascinating exhibition shines a spotlight on one of the most remarkable artists and scientists of the early 18th century. Maria Sibylla Merian excelled in a number of areas, however it is the way that she adopted a scientific method that produced a number of important discoveries was probably her greatest legacy. Her work is now in a number of prestigious collections including a significant number of paintings and notes collected by Peter the Great which are kept in St. Petersburg.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
Maria Merian’s Butterflies is shown at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Scottish Artists 1750 – 1900: From Caledonia to the Continent.
For more information or book tickets, visit the Royal Collection website here
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