Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the most remarkable observers of insects of the later seventeenth century, a period when many remarkable individuals turned their attention to those “lesser living creatures.”1 Highly respected by her eighteenth-century successors, including Carl Linnaeus, her star faded in the nineteenth century as entomology became increasingly professionalized, and as inaccurate reproductions of her copperplate engravings circulated far more widely than her original drawings and the books printed during her lifetime.2 In this volume, Kay Etheridge demonstrates amply that Merian deserves to be recognized, as her contemporaries understood, as one of the pioneers of the study of insects, and in particular, as an innovator in the study of relations between insects and their host plants.
Scholars have engaged in recovering Merian’s life and her artistic and scientific work for close to a century. This process of recovery has tended to emphasize two aspects: her gender and her travel to Suriname from 1699 to 1701, a journey that resulted in her 1705 folio publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname). The present volume makes a significant advance to understanding Merian and her contribution to natural history by drawing our attention instead to her first publication on insects, the 1679 quarto volume titled Der Raupen Wunderbare Verwandelung und Sonderbare Blumen-nahrung (The Wondrous Transformation and Particular Food Plants of Caterpillars), and to the years of meticulous observation that lay behind it. Though Metamorphosis is a more visually impressive book, especially copies with hand-colored engravings, the 1679 caterpillar book reveals much more about Merian’s sustained engagement with the natural world and the methods she developed to investigate it.
It was not unusual for artists in the seventeenth century to turn their attention to insects. They appeared in medieval miniatures, in the drawings, watercolors and oil paintings of Renaissance artists and Dutch still life painters, and in widely circulated woodcuts and engravings. When Maria Sibylla was five or six years old, her older half-brothers Matthaeus the Younger and Caspar were preparing the engraved illustrations for the Polish naturalist John Johnstone’s Historiae Naturalis de Insectis Libri III (Natural History of Insects), which the family firm published in 1653.3 Most of the illustrations were copied from woodcuts in earlier insect books by Ulisse Aldrovandi and Thomas Moffett. But even if Matthaeus and Caspar studied few or no actual insects themselves, Maria Sibylla would have seen hundreds of different kinds in the engraved plates for the work.
What was unusual about Merian was the detailed, painstaking, repeated observations that she made not only of insects’ form but also their behavior and transformations from egg to larva, pupa, and imago (adult), and her careful attention to the food plants that they preferred or required. Earlier, humanistically educated naturalists had made less detailed studies of insects, and the Dutch landscape artist Johannes Goedaert had started observing insects in the 1630s. Merian’s investigations were far more thorough than those of her predecessors, as witnessed in the extensive notes that she made. One of the many virtues of the present volume is Etheridge’s emphasis on how Merian transformed those notes, selecting and reorganizing them, as she composed the text of her 1679 book. By carefully examining the clues in Merian’s published texts (both the 1679 caterpillar book and its 1683 sequel), her notes, her watercolor and gouache studies, and other contemporary sources, Etheridge reconstructs the decades of study that lay behind Merian’s first insect book. She shows us that while Merian was also a household manager, mother, teacher, and after the failure of her marriage, entrepreneur, her insect studies occupied a substantial amount of her time.
With this translation and commentary, Michael Ritterson and Kay Etheridge have provided a signal service to historians of science, art historians, cultural historians, and others who wish to reach a deeper understanding of the study of insects in the late seventeenth century, before entomology became a clearly defined scientific specialty. Digitization projects have made several copies of Merian’s book available online, but the seventeenth-century German in which Merian wrote and the blackletter typeface in which her book was published will deter many potential readers. Ritterson’s translation renders Merian’s language into accessible English while retaining the flavor of the original and avoiding anachronistic modern scientific terms. Etheridge’s commentary situates each chapter within the context of Merian’s larger investigation into nature and later scientific study. Her prefatory chapters offer an excellent introduction to the study of insects before Merian as well as to Merian’s life and work. The concluding chapter traces Merian’s posthumous reputation, which was increasingly shaped by publishers’ decisions that effaced some of her most noteworthy accomplishments. The volume reproduces a set of exquisitely hand colored counterproof prints of the book, ample evidence that an artist and naturalist like Maria Sibylla Merian could produce accurate scientific illustrations that are also things of beauty.
The phrase is a loose translation of minima animalia, the term used to gloss insecta in the title of Thomas Moffett’s 1634 Theater of Insects. “Smallest living creatures” would be more accurate. For a brief overview of early modern studies of insects, see chapter 1, below.
See below, chapter 4, p. 119ff.
Johnstone was born in Poland to a Scottish immigrant; his name is also written Jan Jonston and Joannes Jonstonus.