The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars
June 8-September 3, 2012
At the Museum in the John and Peggy Maximus Gallery
Learn about the life of and work of the remarkable 17th century artist and naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian. For a woman of her era, she led an independent and productive life. She was the first artist to emphasize the life cycle of the butterfly and its interactions with a host plant from her book on European caterpillars in 1679 to her most famous work on the insects of Surinam in 1705. Besides creating visual images of great beauty, she made observations that revolutionized both botany and zoology.
As a young girl, Merian was fascinated by caterpillars. She collected and reared them, observing their changes as she took notes and made detailed drawings, trying to unravel the mystery of metamorphosis. Her diary entries reveal much about her time-consuming and intensive working methods. For more than fifty years she raised silkworms in glass jars and wooden boxes covered with gauze. Unusual for the time, she worked from life, trusting only her own observations.
Merian came from a family of entrepreneurs and saw art through the prism of business. She developed into an entrepreneur, a businesswoman who published her own books and traded in flower paintings, preserved butterflies, reptiles and painting materials.
In 1699 at the age of 52 she sold her paintings, household goods and personal affects to finance a trip to the Dutch Colony of Surinam on the coast of South America. She travelled with her daughter, Johanna. The two women spent two years in that inhospitable tropical climate collecting, rearing and painting the transformation of exotic insects. Back in Amsterdam in 1701, Merian commissioned the engraving of sixty plates based on her drawings. Her descriptions of insect metamorphosis were set in letterpress and bound with the hand-colored plates. She published the book from her home and studio and sold it on subscription.
Featured in the summer exhibit in the gallery are hand-colored engravings and counterproofs from the 1705 edition of The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam as well as rare specimens from our Department of Entomology.