Maria Sibylla Merian

1647–1717

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 Insects of Surinam established her international reputation. The plates in NMWA’s collection come from a second, posthumously published edition, Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam.