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Plate 70 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam

Maria Sibylla Merian1719/1719

National Museum of Women in the Arts

National Museum of Women in the Arts

At age 52, Maria Sibylla Merian undertook a hazardous three-month voyage to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. Her drawings and watercolors of the country’s exotic flora and fauna were reproduced as engravings on her return to Holland two years later. Her studies of insects in their natural habitats contributed to the 18th century’s comprehension of metamorphosis, which had been misunderstood since antiquity.

While in Suriname, Merian used her artistic and observational skills to record creatures, such as this reptile as well. She portrayed its distinctive, intricate patterns of scales with the same precision she brought to insects. The dynamic, elegant loop of its tail adds compositional interest and a baroque flourish.

This engraving is one of 82 that were based on Merian’s meticulous sketches and field notes and appeared in her lavishly illustrated publication.

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  • Title: Plate 70 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam
  • Creator: Maria Sibylla Merian
  • Date: 1719/1719
  • artist profile: Using her keen observational skills, Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized both botany and zoology. From early childhood, she was interested in drawing insects and plants surrounding her. In 1670, she and her husband moved to Nuremberg, where Merian published her first illustrated books. In preparation for a catalogue of European moths, butterflies, and other insects, Merian collected, raised, and observed living insects, rather than working from preserved specimens. In 1685, Merian left Nuremberg and her husband, whom she was later divorced; she and her two daughters moved to the Dutch province of West Friesland. Eight years later, at the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. Merian had seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, and she wanted to study them within their natural habitats. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna. Forced home by malaria, Merian published her most significant book in 1705. The lavishly illustrated volume established her international reputation.
  • Style: Baroque
  • Physical Dimensions: w16.125 x h11 in (Without frame)
  • Type: Print
  • Rights: Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photography by Lee Stalsworth
  • Medium: Hand-colored engraving on paper
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Exhibitions: “Trove: The Collection in Depth,” 2011; “Prints by Maria Sibylla Merian,” 2005–06; “Artists on the Road: Travel as Source of Inspiration,” 1997–98; “Four Centuries of Women’s Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts,” 1990–91

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