Maria Sibylla Merian famous German artist of the second half of the XVII

from The caterpillars' wonderful transformation and strange flower food, Plate CLXIX
from The caterpillars’ wonderful transformation and strange flower food, Plate CLXIX

German artist who has achieved tremendous success both in art and in scientific activity

Maria Sibylla Merian famous German artist of the second half of the XVII early 18th century, an outstanding illustrator and engraver. Maria Sibylla Merian was also one of the best naturalists of her era, she published a number of significant works on flora and fauna. The best masterpieces of her work still have a high scientific and cultural value, and her biography is a vivid example of selfless service to humanity.

Maria Sibylla Merian is rightfully considered the most famous creative person of the famous family dynasty. Moreover, many of her other close relatives made a significant contribution to the development of world art: father Matthäus Merian the Elder engraver; brother Matthäus Merian the Younger painter and printmaker; brother Caspar Merian landscape painter; Johanna Helena Herolt’s daughter is an artist, designer and illustrator.

Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and a False Coral Snake (Anilius scytale)
Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and a False Coral Snake (Anilius scytale)

Biography of Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian was born on April 2, 1647 in Frankfurt am Main and was the only surviving child in her father’s second marriage. Half brothers Matthäus and Kaspar were much older than her and led independent lives. At the time of her birth, Maria’s father was already 54 years old, he was seriously ill and, despite the efforts of doctors, died in June 1650, leaving a young widow with a three-year-old child in her arms.

Jacob Marrel. Portrait of Mary Sibylla Merian, 1679
HxB: 59 x 50.5 cm; Öl auf Leinwand, links modern angestückt und auf Holzfaserplatte aufgezogen; Inv. 43

But the mother of the future artist did not remain lonely for long. Already in 1651, she married the famous landscape painter Jacob Marrel for the second time, who became a loving second father for the girl. It was he who instilled in his stepdaughter a love of drawing and became her first teacher.

In addition to painting, Maria was actively interested in biology from an early age. Even in elementary school, she enthusiastically read books on natural history, collected flowers and insects, wrote observations in a diary and made colored sketches in an album.

Title page of the first edition of the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675
Title page of the first edition of the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675

When the girl was 11 years old, her stepfather entrusted her education to his best student Abraham Mignon.

Intelligent Maria very easily absorbed knowledge and within a year learned how to make copper engravings on her own. At that time, academic education was available only to men, so Maria Sibylla Merian never had an official diploma of an artist.

In 1665, a 19-year-old girl married one of her stepfather’s students, Johann Andreas Graff, but this marriage was not happy. Maria’s husband turned out to be a very mediocre artist and drunkard; in marriage they had two daughters Johann and Dorothea, but all the worries of raising the girls were completely on the shoulders of the mother.

Shortly after the wedding, Maria and her husband moved permanently to Nuremberg, where he was from. The young woman was not at all satisfied with the role of a modest housewife, she continued to paint and developed original patterns for embroidery. In addition, Merian organized a private school for unmarried daughters from wealthy families, where she taught them to draw.

Illustration from the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675
Illustration from the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675

The artist’s first illustrated book In 1675, Neues Blumenbuch, was published. In this edition were collected colorful images of all kinds of colors, personally created by the author. Over the next five years, two more volumes were published, which, in addition to illustrations, contained descriptions of numerous scientific studies. In 1679, Maria Sibylla Merian published a book on the metamorphosis of insects, which further added to the artist’s popularity, and 4 years later the second volume of the edition was published.

In 1685, Maria, taking her daughters, left her husband and went to her brother Kaspar in the Netherlands.

By that time, her marriage had long become a formality, the couple lived separately and did not communicate for a long time. However, in 1692 they had to formalize the divorce, as Johann Andreas Graff suddenly decided to marry a second time.

Gradually the idea of ​​a trip to South America to study exotic representatives of flora and fauna matured in the artist’s head. Having sold most of her collections and paintings, Maria, along with her youngest daughter in February 1699, departed by ship to Suriname, where she lived for the next two and a half years.

Illustration of Rose from the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675
Illustration of Rose from the book Neues Blumenbuch, 1675

The journey turned out to be very exciting and productive, and its main result was the last book by the artist Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Unfortunately, in Suriname, Merian fell ill with malaria and this ailment seriously crippled her health.

Returning to Amsterdam in September 1701, Maria devoted the rest of her life to working on her greatest scientific work. She suffered a stroke shortly before her death and spent the past two years in a wheelchair. The brilliant artist managed to see two volumes of the book in printed form, but on this her earthly path was cut short. On January 13, 1717, Maria Sibylla Merian died at the age of 69. And six months later, her daughter Dorothea published the last third volume of a grandiose scientific work.

Maria Sibylla Merian. Title page of the book, 1679
Maria Sibylla Merian. Title page of the book, 1679
The most famous works of Maria Sibylla Merian

During her creative career, the artist has created many skillful engravings and painted a number of paintings, most of which have long been lost. But connoisseurs of art and scientists are familiar with the most famous works of Maria Sibylla Merian:

  • Neues Blumenbuch (1675-1680) is a unique book for its era with original illustrations and scientific descriptions of all kinds of colors. The artist created colorful pictures for this three-volume edition with her own watercolors and gouache.
  • Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (1679-1717) is the second work of an outstanding daughter of the German people. This book brought pan-European fame to the author, and during her lifetime withstood four reprints.
  • Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1702-1717) is the artist’s last masterpiece, created after a trip to Suriname. While working on it, she personally made copper plates for engraving, and then hand-colored illustrations with images of flowers and insects.

Maria Sibylla Merian was a brilliant creative person and an outstanding scientist of her era. Despite numerous difficulties, she managed to achieve success as an artist, leaving her descendants a vast scientific and cultural heritage.

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