Female Eyes on South America: Maria Sibylla Merian in Surinam, 1699–1701

August 23, 2017

Women traveler artists and naturalists who journeyed to Latin America and the Caribbean in the 17th to 19th centuries were more common than one might suppose. As with their male counterparts, the promise of adventure and discovery made their voyages compelling, and economic and social privilege eased the way, but the women who traveled were in some ways more intrepid and determined, as they needed to push against societal norms of what was appropriate behavior for their sex in order to gain the credence and freedom needed to do the work they chose for themselves. In a series of four texts, of which the second is published here, Dr. Katherine Manthorne sheds light on some of these women traveler artists who succeeded in following their vision. 

Jacobus Houbraken, Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian (c. 1700). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Combining her love of art and science, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) revolutionized the way Europe looked at South American nature. In 1699 she traveled from Amsterdam to Surinam, a Dutch plantation colony on the northeastern corner of the southern continent (often called Dutch Guiana, in analogy to French Guiana and British Guiana). There she captured life-size images of the indigenous insects with details of their natural habitat and reproductive cycles. In 1705, at age 52, she published her magnum opus: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, an illustrated book with text in Dutch and Latin that created a sensation across Europe. Labeled strange, vibrant, and even nightmarish, these remarkable watercolors fuse empirical observation and visionary imagination to present an ever-changing view of nature.

Like most women of the seventeenth century who followed an artistic career, she worked in the family business. Although she was only three when her father Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) died, his work as printmaker and publisher of lavishly illustrated natural history books was in her genes. Her stepfather, the art dealer, engraver, and still-life painter Jacob Marrell, taught her to paint, a skill she applied to still life paintings of birds, insects, and flowers. Marriage at age eighteen to the painter and engraver Johann Andreas Graff brought two daughters and increased religious devotion. In 1685 she abandoned her husband and his Lutheran congregation and traveled to Holland to join the Labadists, a contemplative religious sect that preached communal property and joint upbringing of children. She continued to collect, breed and depict insects, and eventually obtained a divorce. By 1699 she boarded a ship with her younger daughter Dorothea Graff bound for the Labadist colony in Surinam, where for the next two years she studied and sketched the life cycles of local specimens, from butterflies to birds. An illness (likely malaria or yellow fever) forced her to return to Amsterdam prematurely. On the return voyage in 1701 she and her daughter carried with them their precious cargo: watercolor drawings tightly sealed in wooden boxes and once-living specimens of insects, plants and animals preserved in jars of brandy. These would provide the basis for her book The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam published four years later. [1]

Before she ever dreamed of going to Surinam, Merian had spent decades at home documenting European plants and insects.  Initially she made paintings of flowers in combination with insects that were decorative rather than scientific. Then she became especially interested in the life cycles of silk worms, moths, and butterflies, and raised them at home so that she could observe their development. Often sitting up all night, she tried to observe the four stages of their metamorphosis: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult. The eggs are usually laid on the leaves of plants, and once hatched, the caterpillar emerges and immediately begins to eat the leaf to facilitate growth.  When large enough, they form themselves into a pupa or chrysalis, inside of which the short, stubby wingless caterpillar is changing into something remarkable. Finally, the adult moth or butterfly emerges and flaps its wings, which are often colorful and patterned. This amazing transformation of the butterfly led people to conceive it as the symbol of the resurrected soul. The artist’s empirical observations led her to augment this religious interpretation with an explanation of the biological processes behind it. 

Fig. 2. Maria Sibylla Merian, Vermin mirabiles, depicting the life-cycle of the insect (c. 1670–1679), from an album of 160 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of European Insects” © Trustees of the British Museum

After studying these successive stages, Merian combined them in watercolors like this one depicting the life cycle of the moth. In the top view she captured two caterpillars and two chrysalises on a sprig of foliage with red currants, the adult moths hovering nearby. On the bottom sheet she elaborated her subject, showing different types of moths in various positions, along with larva and pupa scattered about the page. These were reproduced for an album of 160 drawings entitled Merian’s Drawings of European Insects & c. published posthumously in Dutch in 1730.[2]  Her Dutch readers, raised with the Protestant conviction of God-in-nature would have viewed the wondrous insects she portrayed as evidence of divine handiwork. 

Maria Sibylla Merian, Orange branch bearing fruit with example of a brown and pink moth (c. 1701–1705), from an album of 91 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

Silkworms were Merian’s first interest. In this rendering she portrayed a large silk moth at the top of the sheet and below it the larvae pupating in a large silk cocoon on the branch of a fruit-bearing orange tree. “They spin a strong thread which made me think it might make good silk,” she observed. “I therefore gathered some and sent it to Holland where it was considered good. If someone were to take the trouble to gather these caterpillars, it would provide good silk and yield a great profit.” She took care with the depiction of Seville or Bitter orange, which she wrote “grow very high in Surinam as high as the tallest apple trees in Europe. The leaves are glossy green, the blossom is white and strongly scented.”

Comparison between Life Cycle of the Moth (Fig. 2) painted in Europe and this one demonstrate the changes in her work after she went to Surinam, where she slashed through jungle vegetation to observe the species in their natural habitats. In the earlier work, she distributed the individual stages of a specimen evenly across the page like a chart but in the later one she created a much more dynamic composition that provided a narrative of their interactions in nature as they transformed from egg (at the base of the image) to caterpillar and adult (at the top).

These images were simultaneously conduits for scientific information and artful designs. The luminescent colors of her watercolor palette, from Carmine red and Prussian blue to the bright orange seen here, made her fruit and butterflies scintillate on the page. Her skillful application of watercolor to the supple surface of the vellum (fine parchment usually made from the skin of a calf) conveys a texture not unlike the soft fuzz on a peach. Just as she influenced natural history illustrators following in her footsteps, so her decorative designs inspired painters working at London’s Chelsea porcelain factory and elsewhere.

Maria Sibylla Merian, A bat, with outstretched wings and a spider in a web above (c. 1691–1699), from an album of 160 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of European Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

This drawing, too, was done in Europe, long before Merian set foot in Surinam. It depicts a bat with outstretched wings with a spider and its web dangling above it. It was among the drawings contained in the two massive albums of her work acquired by London’s British Museum which the Trustees stipulated were to be kept on permanent display, “they being in continual use of the amusement of persons coming to the museum.” Delineated in watercolor on vellum, it has faded significantly since its creation, testifying that museum personnel obeyed that edict and left this work hanging in the galleries, even though it led to damage by exposure to light. On the other hand, it assures us that her work was highly regarded and generated a great deal of public interest. King George III was among those to purchase a set of her watercolors, which have remained ever since in the collection of Buckingham Palace.

Frans Post, Landscape with Chapel, c. 1663. Oil on canvas. 43.5 x 58.7 cm

Merian could well have been aware of the Haarlem-born painter Frans Post’s delineations of Dutch-owned sugar plantations in Northeast Brazil done a half century before she painted in Surinam. Post accompanied Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen who served as governor for Holland’s West India Company in northeast Brazil from 1638 to 1644.  The drawings Post did on the spot provided the basis for his many oil paintings, such as this Landscape with Chapel, and also for the first illustrated book on Brazil (Amsterdam, 1647). He was working in the area of Pernambuco, just south along the South American coast from Surinam where Merian later landed. There Post studied the distinctive animal and plant life closely, and featured everything from armadillos and capybara with such comestibles as watermelons, coconut palms, and pineapple in his foregrounds.

Merian shared with Post some connection to the thriving sugar trade between the Netherlands and South America, for her destination was Paramaribo, Surinam’s capital and the location of several large Dutch-owned sugar plantations. As she and her daughter Dorothea boarded the vessel Peace in Amsterdam to sail 5,000 miles west to the Americas, approximately four thousand tons of raw sugar were being shipped east from the Dutch colony of Surinam back to Holland by the same West India Company that had hired Post. Merian might not have painted sugar cane and plantations as Post did, but trade between these locations similarly impacted her ability to travel to the region, the market for her book on the subject, and a taste for the native flora and fauna that she painted.

Attributed to Dorothea Graff, Caiman wrestling with a red and black snake (c. 1701–1705), from an album entitled “Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most popular images from Merian’s album, this watercolor is thought to represent a young Spectacled Caiman, or Caiman crocodile, a species found in Surinam.  The composition derives its dynamism from the crocodile’s struggle with a Red Pipe Snake. The concave shape of the crocodile’s body anchors the composition while his upturned snout and tail grab the two ends of the snake’s coiled and writhing form. This is a Darwinian view of the survival of the fittest long before Darwin was born. The clear outlines and dramatic style of this composition contrast with others in the album, leading scholars to speculate that this could be the work of another hand, perhaps that of her daughter Dorothea Graff. Working at a time when reproduction and facsimile were difficult to make, Merian trained her assistants—including her daughter—to make copies and variations on her designs. Just as her male colleagues such as Peter Paul Rubens had workshop assistants with particular specialties, so Dorothea Graff likely focused her efforts on reptiles, freeing her mother to devote her attention to insects.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple and examples of five insects (c. 1701–1705), from an album of 91 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

Largely overlooked in Merian’s Surinam imagery, the fruit components deserve attention, for they reveal her audience’s desire to assimilate foreign food into their diets, and the related Dutch taste for exotica from their colonies. Her Metamorphosis opens with two successive illustrations of the Pineapple, one showing the entire plant and the other a close-up of the fruit in the midst of butterflies, flying insects and caterpillars. Dubbed by Merian “the noblest of all the edible fruits,” the pineapple was valued as a rare treat in seventeenth century Europe. Its presence on a host’s dining table, like its replication in Merian’s book, conveyed not only the allure of distant places but also the power and status of those who could afford them. Pictorially she was drawing upon strategies of the Dutch still life tradition, which juxtaposed food with other exotic objects to present it as an object of desire. Today we might read Merian’s prints as referents to colonialism, collecting, and consumption. But in the early eighteenth century her careful renderings of the pineapple helped broaden the appeal of her book beyond the naturalist’s study of insects and enticed her viewers to contemplate the sweet pleasures of this seductive fruit.[3]

Maria Sibylla Merian, Peacock Flower, with example of a grey and orange moth (c. 1701–1705), from an album of 91 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

During the artist’s residence Surinam’s population included huge numbers of indigenous and African slaves doing back-breaking work on the sugar plantations. One of the few direct references she made to them appears in the text she wrote to accompany the Flos Pavonis or Peacock flower:

The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that they will not become slaves like themselves. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have any children. In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.

This passage is especially startling, not only because it acknowledges the injustices of colonialism and slavery, but also because it suggests the use of a medicinal plant that allowed these enslaved women to have some control over their own bodies. Her pictorial rendering of these saffron-colored flowers and rich greens of the plant populated by the larva, caterpillar, and butterfly, however, provide no hint of its abortive properties.

Robert H. Schomburgk and Charles Bentley, Title page to “Twelve Views in the Interior of Guiana,” 1840. Lithograph. 37.5 x 54.6 cm

Like the Dutch and the French, the British had colonized the northeast corner of South America. Robert Schomburgk (1804-1865) led four expeditions to British Guiana on behalf of London’s Royal Geographic Society between 1835 and 1844. The findings of his initial forays there were published in a handsome folio volume entitled Twelve Views of the Interior of Guiana, after sketches taken during the expedition, in 1835 to 1839 (London, 1841). As the preface explains, the expedition’s draftsman James Morrison made the sketches under Schomburgk’s direction. Charles Bentley then elaborated them back in London, and the plates were produced from the finished sketches. This illustration from the title page reads as a compendium of nineteenth century preconceptions of this far-away land. Two scantily clad male natives bearing spears flank the landscape, in which the calm waters of the river recede to the horizon where a mountain peak stands. In the central foreground float the blossoms Schomburgk “discovered” in British Guiana: a flower he christened the Victoria Regia in honor of young Victoria, about to be crowned Queen. Just as earlier Merian’s images stimulated Dutch interest in the insects, animals, and plants of Surinam, so now in mid-nineteenth century Britain the Victoria Regia became a major attraction at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Thereafter a craze for hothouses sprang up to facilitate the growth of this and other tropical plants from South America in the cold grey fog of London.

Dorothea Graff or Johanna Herolt after Maria Sibylla Merian, Branch of a defoliated guava tree with tarantulas, ants and spiders (c. 1701–1705), from an album of 91 drawings entitled “Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects.” © Trustees of the British Museum

This watercolor is among Merian’s most powerful visual statements. On this single sheet she created an incredible drama of tropical nature set among the branches of a defoliated guava tree. She shows one tarantula emerging from a nest while another has mounted a colorful hummingbird, with its precious eggs in a nearby nest. The world’s largest spiders, tarantulas use their eight hairy legs to grab their victims and inject them with paralyzing venom. Merian drew the tarantula feeding on a hummingbird and wrote: “They take small birds from their nests and suck all the blood from their bodies.” Ants, too, make an appearance, crawling along the tree branch in a bridge-like formation consuming the tasty guava leaves as they go, for they “can eat whole trees bare as a broom handle in a single night,” as the artist noted. Other species of spider round out the composition, their spindly forms dangling from webs adding another touch of dread. Eighteenth-century viewers were fascinated by Merian’s narratives of the natural world as a site of combat and cruelty, in much the same way they enjoyed dramatic scenes of human activities. By the Victorian era, when doubt was cast on the achievements of women in art and science, Merian was ridiculed for her findings—including her insistence that spiders could eat birds. However, history has proven that the view of nature she presented in her remarkable pictures is essentially correct. In The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam (1705), she pioneered a single ecological composition that combined images of insects with their habitat and food source. Her legacy was celebrated by many, including Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) who composed his Concerto Grosso Op. 3, no. 2 Maria Sibylla Merian in her honor.

[1] Sources consulted for this discussion include: J. Harvey, “Introduction: Maria Sibylla Merian, The Surinam Album,” The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam (facsimile edition, London: Folio Society, 2006); Kim Todd, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (Orlando: Harcourt, 2007).


[2] Maria Sibylla Merian, De Europischen insecten, naauwkeurig onderzot…. (Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard, 1730).


[3] Hannah Blumenthal, “A Taste for Exotica: Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium,” Gastronomica v. 6, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 44-52.