Last fall Painted Lady butterflies invaded Colorado.
Their orange and black wings flickered on every bush, and they streamed across roadways in and around traffic. There were so many, that they even showed up in a 7-mile wide blob on the Denver weather radar. No one had ever seen so many in Colorado, and everyone took lots of photos.
Before photography, artists were the ones who helped people learn about the natural world. Some artists/naturalists, such as John James Audubon, are famous (an earlier Picture Lady post tells about his life and work) but most weren’t.
However in the 1700s and 1800s these mostly amateur artists/naturalists were vital parts of expeditions to explore the American West, the Pacific islands, Africa, and South America. Their careful drawings and paintings of birds and plants, mammals and insects astonished people and advanced scientific knowledge of the beauty and variety of God’s creation.
Two artists/naturalists who were especially interested in insects and butterflies have been rediscovered.
Maria Sibylla Merian
(1647-1717), a German woman who lived in the Netherlands, studied the insects of her own region and later traveled with just her daughter for company, to Suriname, then a Dutch colony in South America. For two years she traveled on foot and by canoe through lush tropical rainforests to study insects there, telling about ants that formed rafts to float across water and tarantulas that ate humming birds. The folks at home were fascinated!
Titian Ramsay Peale II (1799-1885) son of the American artist and naturalist, Charles Willson Peale, (an earlier Picture Lady post tells about the amazing Peale family of artists), was born in Independence Hall where his father’s museum occupied the 2nd floor. He watched while his father prepared and catalogued specimens brought back by Lewis and Clark and helped put together a mastodon skeleton his father helped dig up in New York . Later, as an artist/naturalist, himself, Titian accompanied an expedition to the Rockies.
On a two year expedition around the Pacific islands, Titian painted an eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.
Though separated by a century and an ocean, Maria and Titian had a lot in common:
- They were trained in art by their fathers and other family members
- They were fascinated by butterflies and moths
- They raised butterflies and moths in order to observe and draw their life cycles
- Their work was recognized and appreciated early in their lives, but forgotten later
- They went on long exploring expeditions
- Maria’s Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname has been republished, and Titian’s unpublished manuscript Butterflies of North America, which was given to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC after his death and stayed in its rare book collection, has now been published for the first time.
- One difference: some of Titian’s butterfly specimens are still displayed in double-sided glass boxes he designed at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences
Maria and Titian used their observational skills to portray butterflies accurately. They painted butterflies in their own habitats, with host plants and their full life cycle from egg to caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Maria was one of the first to do this, and you can see her influence on Audubon and Peale
Maria’s and Titian’s artistic skills enabled them to paint the butterflies in vibrant color and pleasing compositions. Not for them dull rows of specimens. Because of the purpose of showing the butterflies accurately, there is little depth in these illustrations, but the artists have made good use of their up-close space, not crowding things together.
The illustrations are full of different types of line and shape, color and texture, and pattern—all provided by the Lord! Plants are up close and the butterflies look like they could fly off the page.
Maria’s illustrations can be very dramatic, with half eaten fruits and leaves and ants battling spiders. She was definitely part of the Netherlandish vanitas painting tradition, (beautiful still lifes with partly-eaten food, insects, lizards, or other jarring elements to remind viewers of the shortness of life).
Titian’s butterflies are often arranged more lyrically—sometimes seeming to float up in lazy spirals
Remember that it helps to understand art if you know its original purpose. So, although Maria’s and Titian’s work is in museums and private collections, most of it was made to be printed in books for many people to enjoy.
Here are some resources to see more of their beautiful illustrations.
Maria Sibylla Merian
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, available on Amazon but expensive. Use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to see more of Maria’s illustrations.
Insects and Flowers: the Art of Maria Sibylla Merian by David Brafman, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008. Lots of up close illustrations through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.
Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd, Mariner Books, 2007, available on Amazon, and has “Look Inside” feature.
2 Children’s books about Maria
Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Abrams, 2018, ages 8-12. A biography of Maria with lots of information about her times. I haven’t been able to read the whole book yet so can only say that the excerpts look interesting. One short section does make a point that Maria’s family is Protestant, but only attributes a good work ethic to that.
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman, HMH Books, 2018, ages 10-12. I have a copy of this on reserve at the library, but it’s not available yet. Hopefully by my next post I can tell you more about it.
Titian Ramsay Peale II
The Butterflies of North America, Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript, Abrams, 2015, available at libraries, but you can see many of its illustrations through Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. The book purposely looks old and the illustrations retain the look of a personal nature journal.
If you borrow it from a library, be sure to look at the section on caterpillars. Not many naturalists paid much attention to caterpillars, but Titian lavished much care on them.
2 Children’s Books about Charles Willson Peale. Titian’s father, Charles, fought in the Revolutionary War and painted many of America’s early leaders. He also started an art and natural science museum in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The whole family, including Titian, helped in the museum.
The Ingenious Mr. Peale: Painter, Patriot, and Man of Science by Janet Wilson, ages 11 and up. I have not read this.
The Joke’s on George, Michael O. Tunnell, George Washington was a friend of the Peales and visited their museum. In passing a trompe l’oeil painting of two of Charles’ sons, Washington bowed to them in greeting.
To view 2 videos by Khan Academy about the museum and the painting, go to
(The Titian in the Staircase painting is an older brother who died. Titian Ramsay Peale II was named for this older brother.)
I’m going to change up the order of the next posts about this art so you can right away enjoy some artist/naturalist activities over the summer. You don’t have to be a professional scientist to study and learn about the world in your own back yard.
Before the next post, try to find a small to medium size sketchbook that you can carry with you. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you can decorate its cover.
Nature guides are helpful, too, and available at libraries.
In this series the last post will be the devotion—some thoughts for a summer of observing and learning about the small wonders of God’s creation.
Molly is ready to go exploring. Are you?
(That isn’t a muzzle on Molly. It’s a gentle harness to keep her from pulling on our walks. She can still drink, bark, and even give kisses!)
Be sure to sign up for the next Picture Lady posts for some ideas about observing and drawing nature and suggestions for writing and reading about it.