Saturday, July 12, 2008

Metamorphosis and Transformation

On Thursday, the Sterling Morton Library’s book discussion group gathered to discuss the remarkable life of Maria Sibylla Merian. Her life, adventures and contributions are recounted in this month’s reading selection, Chrysalis : Maria Sibylla Merian and the secrets of metamorphosis, by Kim Todd. Daughter of noted engraver Matthaus Merian the Elder, Maria was born in Frankfurt in April 1647. When she was three, her father died and a year later her mother married Jacob Marrel, a painter and art dealer. Encouraged to draw at an early age, she became a keen artist and naturalist. During and after her early marriage and birth of her children, she continued to study and draw insects and teach students. She became particularly interested in the lifecycle of caterpillars and butterflies, exploring this transformative process and struggled to illustrate all the stages of their development. During this time she also pursued a personal transformation, leaving her husband, joining the Labadist religious community and eventually moving to Amsterdam. In pursuit of her artistic and scientific interests, she then left Europe with her youngest daughter, Dorothea Maria, in June of 1699 to travel to the Dutch colony of Suriname. During her work in Suriname, she observed and illustrated the insect world and the plants connected to this life process. Living and working in this northern South American country for about two years, she studied and recorded the local flora and fauna. Returning to the Netherlands in 1701, she continued to illustrate the remarkable process of metamorphosis and eventually published her work. Whew! What an adventure! Her life and work were groundbreaking for many personal and professional reasons especially considering the fact that she was one of the earliest naturalists to observe insects directly.

It was a treat to discuss and consider this remarkable life and work at our discussion group gathering. It was especially helpful to view some of the works from our collections related to the Merian family:
Several works illustrated by her father, Matthaus Merian the Elder.

A book published by her beloved half brother, Caspar Merian.
Works by Maria Sibylla Merian. The present exhibit in the Sterling Morton Library has on display a Dutch translation (1719) of her seminal work - Metamorphosis insectorum Sarinamensium. This 1719 edition was published after Maria's death by her youngest daughter and Suriname traveling companion, Dorothea Maria.
Also in our collection are two exquisite original works by her eldest daughter, Johanna Helena Herolt. These watercolor and gouache works on vellum depict flowers and the accompanying insect lifecycles.

External resource of special note:
Presently, there is a wonderful exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum entitled Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science. This exhibit "charts the artistic and scientific explorations of German artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria." If you are unable to view this exhibit at the Getty in-person, be sure to view it on-line!

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