'Metamorphosis' by Merian

From caterpillar to butterfly

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was fascinated by the remarkable lives of caterpillars and butterflies. In 1705 this fascination led to the extraordinarily beautiful book about the shapes and metamorphoses of tropical insects in Surinam: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.

Detail plaat VII, Metamorphosis Merian, 1705, topstuk uit Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

From 1699 to 1701, she undertook a study trip with her youngest daughter to Surinam. From Parmubo, the present-day Paramaribo, she travelled along the Surinam River to the former plantations of the Labadists. Using these plantations as an operating base, she took every opportunity to make trips and study indigenous insects in the jungle, along river banks and in swamps and pampas. Back in Amsterdam, she works up her drawings and notes, and in 1705 the Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, was published. Besides illustrations of butterflies and caterpillars, this book also contains illustrations of ants, spiders, amphibians and reptiles.

Naming plants with Caspar Commelin

Detail titelpagina 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

Of the 60 beautiful illustrations in the Metamorphosis, she engraved three illustrations herself while the others were made by Jozef Mulder, Pieter Sluyter and Daniel Stoopendael. She herself coloured the illustrations, assisted by her two daughters. Help in naming the plants came from the botanist Caspar Commelin, manager of the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens. She wrote the zoological descriptions, probably checking her findings against publications of her contemporaries, the zoologist Jan Swammerdam, who specialised in insects, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope and the first 'microbiologist'. Merian herself bore the considerable financial risk of the publication, of which about 60 copies were printed in Dutch and Latin. Gerard Valck, mentioned in the imprint as the publisher, acted as her agent.

Mirror images

Detail plaat XLII 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

In 1719, a second edition appeared with 72 illustrations from both the Latin and Dutch versions. Many editions, also in other languages, were to follow. There are also separate plates with the illustrations in mirror image. Probably Merian made them herself by pressing the still wet impression of the original copper engraving against a clean sheet of paper, so as to create a 'counter impression' in mirror image. The technique of counter impressions is very rare. They do not have the 'dent' left by the copperplate in the paper and the lines are softer. When making a counter impression it is important to cover text sections and page numbers when pressing, otherwise they are shown in reverse. This did not always work out well, as can be seen from illustrations 42 and 49 in this digitised copy. Here we do see the names of the engravers in reverse! The Utrecht copy is a relatively rare counter impression, because the edition was limited and the price higher. Only illustration 18, with the ants and the bird spiders, is a 'normal'  copper print. The remarkable thing is that illustrations 3 to 12, 14 and 37 have a 'dent' in the paper. Could it be that when pressing the wet impression a plate was used to exert extra pressure?

Detail plaat XLIX 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

Quite a few mistakes

In her books Maria always depicted the caterpillar and its matching butterfly, together with the plant they thrived on. With respect to the identification of European butterflies her work is faultless. Unfortunately the Metamorphosis shows quite a few mistakes and not every butterfly matches the right caterpillar. Possibly the research samples got mixed up during the return journey from Surinam. Also we have to take into account that Merian returned ill from the tropics.

Maria Sybilla Merian's legacy

Detail plaat XVIII 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

With her botanical books Merian made an important contribution to the entomology. Also thanks to her work the idea of spontaneous generation was gradually left: caterpillars do not come from dead material at all. This was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt by Merian's accurate descriptions of the lives of insects. Apart from her scholarly merits she lives on in other ways. Her portrait used to adorn the German 500 mark banknote. And in the Netherlands a butterfly is named after her, the meriansborstel (Calliteara pudibunda), coming from a beautiful and very pilose caterpillar. And because of plate XVIII of the Metamorphosis depicting some spiders, Maria may be indirectly responsible for the name ‘bird spider’. Among other things, the illustration shows a big spider that has caught a small bird. In the accompanying text, the ‘Colobritges’ are mentioned, referring to hummingbirds. The hapless hummingbird in the illustration underwent an involuntary metamorphosis in the end…

Who was Maria Sibylla Merian?

Maria Sibylla Merian was the daughter of Matthaus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), a German-Swiss painter, engraver and publisher who lived in Frankfurt. She was only three years old when he died. Maria’s mother remarried the artist Jacob Marell (1614-1681) who had moved from Utrecht to Frankfurt one year earlier to start an art shop and studio. He specialised in still-life flowers and fruits, which were becoming increasingly popular at the time.

Opening uit 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, plaat XLI, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

A thorough education in drawing and painting

At her stepfather’s insistence Maria received a thorough education in drawing and painting from the time she was eleven. Her preferred subjects were flowers and insects. She discovered that butterflies came from caterpillars via a metamorphosis to a pupa or silk cocoon, and that every type of caterpillar has a diet based on a certain plant. She made drawings that depicted caterpillars and their species-specific food plant, their own cocoon or pupa and the emerging butterfly. She conducted systematic research in this field from 1675 onwards.

Two daughters were born from her marriage in 1665 to the artist Johann Andreas Graff (1637-1701). The family lived in Nuremberg, where Maria devoted a great deal of her time to drawing and painting and continued her entomological studies. Using dyes she made herself from plants, she succeeded in obtaining waterproof paints that she used to decorate cloths. The decorations she painted in this manner did not discolour and penetrated through the cloth, creating an equally clear illustration on both sides.

Detail plaat XX, 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

Her fame began in Utrecht

Merian's flower drawings were in great demand as models for embroidery. Her stepfather, who in the meantime had returned to Utrecht, sold her work in his Utrecht based art shop. That is how she became well known in the Netherlands in that period.

Cabinets or curiosities

Detail plaat VII, 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

Between 1675 and 1680, her three-volume flower book was published in Nuremberg, followed in 1679 by the first part of her work on the diet of European caterpillar and their metamorphosis. The two later parts were published in 1683 in Frankfurt and, posthumously, in 1717 in Amsterdam. In 1681, after the disintegration of her marriage, she moved with her mother and daughters into the Labadist colony, a religious community, in the Frisian village of Wiuwert. Anna Maria van Schurman, the famous theologian and linguist, had lived there shortly before. In 1690, Maria established herself in Amsterdam, where she came into contact with the mayor, Nicolaas Witsen, and other dignitaries who showed her their much-loved 'cabinets of curiosities'


Loes Kuiper-Brussen
(edited by  Marco van Egmond and Petra Davids, July 2020)

Detail boekband 'Metamorphosis' van Merian, 1705, topstuk uit de Bijzondere Collecties van de Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht