Back in the seventeenth century people in the west believed in Divine Order – that God created everything fully formed (albeit with room to grow) and that everything had its place in a hierarchy.
But Maria Sibylla Merian, daughter of a Swiss engraver and publisher living in Frankfurt, and later the step-daughter of a flower and still-life painter, had spent her life studying the intricacies of butterflies, moths and caterpillars – initially painting flowers and then the interlopers on them - and was consumed by the scandalous thought that the one grew from the other. That there was one life-cycle in what looked like completely different creatures: a shape-shifting from the egg to the caterpillar to the chrysalis to the butterfly; and that they did not all appear spontaneously from the mud as had been thought. She wrote to a colleague, James Petiver, who collected insects for her that she was only interested in ‘the generation and reproduction and transformation of the animals, and how one emerges from the other, and the properties of their food’.
This bizarre transformation of life became her obsession, even taking her to South America at a time when travel across the oceans to a land of unimaginable heat and hardship could hardly have been contemplated – let alone by a single woman of insubstantial means in her fifties accompanied by her unmarried daughter.
Maria spent two years in Surinam before she was struck with malaria and she returned to Amsterdam to prepare her drawings for engraving and assemble her findings.
The resulting book Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, with 60 copperplate engravings, was published in 1705 in Dutch and Latin and it showed the different stages of insect development on the plant life that supported them, along with detailed field notes. The plates were beautiful and scientifically accurate, and the work was praised at the time for ‘the great passion for investigation and tireless diligence of this woman’.
Maria was one of the first to describe and document metamorphosis by direct observation: but not just the incredible mutation of seemingly random creatures into things of fragile beauty. She also realised the interrelationship between plants and animals which heralded in the study of biological science and ecology. And yet her achievements have been largely overlooked, the ‘ecological innovation of her portraits passed without notice’ (Chrysalis, Kim Todd, 2007).
Overall, Maria published three volumes of flower paintings, and two of caterpillars, along with Metamorphosis, but what she is mainly remembered for now is the beauty and vibrancy of her paintings which were collected by both Peter the Great for his palace in St. Petersburg, and George III, who when Prince of Wales bought 93 watercolours (and which are now part of the Royal Collection Trust).