Many people will tell you that botanical and naturalist prints are out of vogue at the moment, but I still like them in the right place. The best of them are quite beautiful, and like a lot of things I’ve collected they become a lot more interesting when you know a little bit about them.
And that’s why I’m so in love with the work of Maria Sibylla Merian. Her hand-colored engravings are beautiful and highly detailed, and she — as a scientist, artist, and person — was one kick-ass woman.
I found the engravings many years ago, before I knew about the artist. The works are astounding — illustrations of bugs and butterflies and crickets and caterpillars, and even a few paintings of snakes and lizards. Some of her engravings do have flowers like you’d expect from a typical botanical print, but her illustrations are not typical in the least. When you see a plant, there’s a life-sized insect on it, and it’s meant to show what the bugs eat and where they lay their eggs. She’s not just painting pretty pictures, she’s a working entomologist cataloging species that she herself discovered or first described.
Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Germany in 1647 to an educated and artistic family, who encouraged her interest in natural history. She trained as an artist, and painted flowers and insects like a lot of other female still-life painters of the time. But she went one step further, making scientific observations and often breeding her own insects to paint their development. She was good enough at it that she was soon making enough money to leave an unhappy marriage, taking her two children along with her.
And that’s just the start. Read up on her life, and you start to feel a little less accomplished yourself. She and a daughter traveled to the very wild South American colony of Suriname to collect insects — and this was in 1700, when pirates and disease and sinking ships were very real possibilities. She became one of the world’s most famous entomologists, in spite of her gender, and her work “Metamorphosis” is still considered the most magnificent work on insects. When she died her daughters sold 300 of her works to Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, and he opened an art museum in Russia to display them. In modern times, her face was on the 500 Deutschmark note, and, well, people still love her engravings. And two butterflies, a moth, a true bug, a genus of mantises, a snail, a lizard, a toad, a bird, two spiders (one of them a bird-eating tarantula), a lily, a genus of flowering plants, and a German research ship have all been named after her.
One woman’s love of something most people overlook made her strong and famous, and made the world a better place. That’s something I’m proud to hang on my wall. If you need a little bit of buggy inspiration, I’ve got a few of her engravings for sale in my shop.