Brain Pickings

Art, Science, and Butterfly Metamorphosis: How a 17th-Century Woman Laid the Foundations of Modern Entomology

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Remarkable drawings that shaped the course of science and radically defied gender norms.

At a time when women in science were a rarity, German-born naturalist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) did for the study of insects what pioneering fossil-hunter Mary Anning did for paleontology and egg collector and scientific illustrator Genevieve Jones did for ornithology. One of the most important contributors to the field of entomology in the history of science, her studies of insects in Surinam, documented in her meticulous and elaborate drawings — which are rediscovered and celebrated anew every few decades, including in a recent exhibition at the Getty Museum — were especially influential in shaping our understanding of the metamorphosis of the butterfly and laid the foundation for modern entomology.

Merian bred her own insects, but after seeing a collection of butterflies from Dutch Guiana, modern-day Surinam, she became fascinated by the life-cycle of butterflies and moths, very poorly understood at the time, and set out to study those living in tropical flora, determined to figure out whether they shared the same egg-and-caterpillar process as those she bred herself. In 1699, Merian and her daughter Dorothea sailed to South America to study insects — a venture unheard of at the time, and the very first expedition of this scale a woman had ever undertaken. It took her six years to classify and evaluate her specimens, but when Merian eventually published her magnum opus, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, in Dutch and English in 1705, it forever changed the course of entomology. She illustrated the stages of insects she had discovered in 60 stunning copperplate engravings, depicting the butterflies, moths, and caterpillars around the plants she had encountered on her travels. The book became for 17th-century Europeans a window into an unknown wonderland, brimming with equal parts artistic whimsy and scientific significance.

Count on Taschen — makers of lavish tomes on such diverse yet uniformly fascinating subjects as information graphics, jazz history, Grimm illustrations, magic, and menu design — to capture Merian’s enduring legacy in the gorgeous Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam (public library), reprinting her original engravings in vibrant color, alongside contextualizing commentary by biologist, science book illustrator, and museum director Katharina Schmidt-Loske.

In the fascinating Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World, Marlene Zuk writes of Merian:

Merian documented, many years before the naturalists of the time, the life cycles of butterflies, moths, and other insects. Her work is exquisite from an aesthetic perspective, but what interests me more is that as a woman in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, she was able to make scientific contributions that would have been impossible in virtually any other field, simply by virtue of using the specimens from her own garden. She eventually traveled to Surinam to study the brilliantly colored insects of the steamy jungle, but that was after her interests had been firmly set. Although she, like many other women scientists and naturalists, faced opposition for her unfeminine activities, the accessibility of her subjects meant that she could keep doing the work she loved.

Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam is spectacular in its entirety, as artistically impressive as it is scientifically influential, and above all a time-capsule of groundbreaking, gender-norm-defying achievement. Complement it with the similarly stirring story of Genevieve Jones’s egg and nest illustrations.

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