Maria Sibylla Merian : When Art Meets Science

The long-standing debate over the superiority of Art over Science is a pulsing and raging argument. Throughout the course of it, many –often philosophical- questions have duly emanated.
Are they really as distinct as we seem to assume? And if they are, what is the distinction? Do we have a clear definition of each that allows us to see their separation?

Although there is no universal agreement on these questions, it is safe to say that the best science always requires a fair bit of creative thinking. As well as some sort of mechanism to interpret data or findings in a clear and ameliorated format.

A page from Darwin's Notebook showing his sketch of the tree of life.

A page from Darwin’s Notebook showing his sketch of the ‘Tree Of Life.

The image above is a rather popular sketch from Charles Darwin’s personal notebook, visualising his early notions on the devices of evolution.

For a large portion of the history of modern science, scientific illustrations were your best bet at gaining detailed and clear interpretations of your findings for later reference. Commonly used in the scientific fields of morphology and anatomical studies, illustrations allowed others to peer into the window of your scientific research. Opinions and ideas could be shared among scientific peers easily and quickly. The advent of the printing press in the early 15th century (attributed to Johannes Gutenberg in Germany), resulted in a cascade of consequences for science; causing what many consider to be the first information revolution. Printed books were used to carry the latest thinking on all subjects scientific,literary and religious; encouraging the idea of questioning traditional authority. Book reading was now a private activity and the scientific illustrations contained within books did not have to be regulated or restricted. It was one the many changes that helped to create the more individual, questioning minds that came to make scientific achievements.

Leonardo Da Vinci produced highly detailed illustrations of the Human Anatomy in his works.

Leonardo Da Vinci produced highly detailed illustrations of the human anatomy in his works.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a German scientific illustrator and naturalist. Long before the camera was invented, she acted as the world’s eyes by painting stunning and scientifically accurate pictures of flowers and later, of insects. Although she was one of the world’s first entomologists, unfortunately she is also one of the least well-known. Not only was she an accomplished artist, but she was also an excellent naturalist and a bold explorer too. Living in Amsterdam for a period of her life, Merian became spellbound by the stunning array of tropical flora and fauna that returning travelers brought with them from the Dutch colony of Suriname, located in South America. Much like Darwin she had a great passion for flowers and insects (particularly butterflies), Merian was determined to visit Suriname so she could study and paint the local insects and plants from living individuals instead of from pinned or prepared specimens. She worked hard; painting and studying the local collections for eight years before the city of Amsterdam awarded her a grant to travel to Suriname to paint its flora and fauna – an almost unheard of achievement at the time because such grants were typically awarded only to men.

Merian worked in Suriname and travelled around the colony for two years before incurring malaria in 1701; forcing her to return to the Netherlands. She recorded local native names for the plants and described local uses.

Back in the Netherlands, Merian sold specimens she had collected and published a collection of engravings of plant and animal life in Suriname. In 1705 she published a book ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium’ . The Latin name is quite a mouthful but I’ll hazard a guess and say that it has something to with the breadth of insects found in Suriname.

An interesting facet of Merian’s achievements and works is that they most likely have originated as a product of the economic climate present at that time. As in most walks of life, financial pressures have played a significant part in shaping the progress of science. On a rather grander scale, when explorers and collectors set off on botanical expeditions into the unknown during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, at least part of their motivation was to find new species of plants that they could exploit. Early adventurers had shown the fabulous wealth that could be obtained from the discovery and sale to the ‘Old World‘ of plants. The introduction and success of tobacco helped to fuel the worldwide search for so-called ‘botanical gold’ to exploit. Voyages undertaken by bold adventurers helped to introduce new species of animals and plants that prompted further investigation.

File:Chute tobacco.JPG

First known image of a man smoking, from Chute’s pamphlet “Tabaco” ( Photo Credit : Wikipedia)

Merian herself was inspired by the rich, diverse array she had witnessed in the specimens bought over by Dutch adventurers, her work further influenced some of the most astonishing and important discoveries of other naturalists; most notably Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks.

Below you can find a short extract of her beautiful works, all taken from ‘Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium‘ :

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Maria Sibylla Merian 1700

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

Illuminated Copper engraving from Metamorphosi...

Colored copper engraving from Metamorphosis in...

It’s clear that her work paved the way for a whole new epoch of scientific illustrations and the presentation of information. It also helped to construct the sciences of entomology and other branches of zoology as a serious and practical science.

To find a much more extensive catalogue of the works of Maria Sibylla Merian, this website contains an online exhibition :

On Tuesday 2nd of April 2013 a fantastic, honorary google doodle was produced in her distinct artistic style. It was created to commemorate her birth anniversary.

Painting by German illustrator and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian

Google Doodle ( Image Credit : Google)

File:Merian Maria Sibylla 1647-1717.jpg

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian


One thought on “Maria Sibylla Merian : When Art Meets Science

  1. Pingback: Play on art, insects, and slavery in Suriname | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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