Maria Sibilla Merian (1717) by After Georg GsellRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Born in Frankfurt in 1647, Maria Sibylla Merian developed her skills as a watercolourist under her artist stepfather. Her fascination with insect life-cycles led to her publishing a book on caterpillars in 1679.
Marsh Marigold with the Life Stages of a Frog (1705/1710) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Later in life, Merian separated from her husband and moved to Amsterdam with her daughters, Dorothea and Johanna. She found a lively community of natural historians there, who encouraged her research and illustrations.
In 1699 Maria Merian travelled to Suriname in South America to study insects and other lifeforms, returning to Amsterdam in 1701 and publishing 'Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium' in 1705. She produced at least two luxury versions of her illustrations, of which one set was acquired by George III.
Ripe Pineapple with Dido Longwing Butterfly (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Merian depicted the 'metamorphosis' (change in life cycle) of the South American butterflies and moths she observed, often alongside native flora.
… to fully-fledged adult.
Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
For these luxury versions, Merian created a partial print of each etching she made and, while the ink was still wet, transferred a reverse image onto a sheet of vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then coloured by hand.
The plates stand out not just in the field of science, but as accomplished artworks as well.
Pomegranate and Menelaus Blue Morpho Butterfly (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Many of the insects she painted had never been seen before in Europe, and Merian made notes about them.
She described the blue morpho, for example, as fast-flying with wings that resembled roof tiles under a microscope.
Branch of Seville Orange with Rothschildia Moth (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Maria had collected insects in her youth, including silkworms.
She recognised that the caterpillars of this rothschildia moth produced good silk, and in her text suggested harvesting it commercially.
Cocoa Tree with Southern Armyworm Moth (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Many new crops from the Americas had been successfully introduced to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Merian described how cocoa was grown in the shade of large leaves, such as those of the banana tree, to protect it from the heat.
Citron with a Monkey Slug Moth and a Harlequin Beetle (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Merian encountered some incredible insects in Suriname.
She added the harlequin beetle "on account of its rarity". In her text she continues "I gladly leave it to others to investigate this creature further".
The monkey slug moth did not hatch until her voyage back to Amsterdam.
Branch of Guava tree with Army Ants, Pink-Toe Tarantulas and Huntsman Spiders (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Merian’s primary reason for visiting Suriname was to study insect metamorphosis, but she also observed other behaviours.
In her notes, Maria describes how certain species of ant "can eat whole trees bare as a broom handle in a single night".
The Latin name of the tarantula genus is Avicularia, meaning ‘small bird’, as experts believed they preyed on birds. We now know this not to be true. This image may have been responsible for the myth.
Water Hyacinth with Marbled or Veined Tree-Frogs and Giant Water-Bugs (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
The giant water-bug is one of the largest insects in the world, growing to a length of 11cm.
The male water-bug carries the eggs, which the female sticks on to his back: we can see four on the back of the lower bug here.
Shoreline Purslane and Suriname Toad (1702/1703) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
The female Suriname toad carries her fertilised eggs under the skin on her back.
When the young are grown, they break through the skin and swim away. Merian was the first European naturalist to describe this phenomenon.
Common or Spectacled Caiman with South American False Coral Snake (1705/1710) by Maria Sibylla MerianRoyal Collection Trust, UK
Merian’s work remained popular and influential after her death in 1717. The 'Metamorphosis' was reissued four times and was found in libraries across Europe. Her illustrations were used by designers as well as scientists.
Merian dedicated her publication "to all lovers and investigators of nature". Over 300 years later, these meticulous, brilliant works celebrate a woman whose art and whose story are enduringly popular.
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021