Monthly Archives: April 2023

Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist and Naturalist

Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughter traveled to northern South America to study the insects, plants, and creatures of the rain forest. We probably wouldn’t think it that strange today, but it was the 1600s, and it took 2 rough months by ship just to get there from the Netherlands. Few women braved such travels by themselves. But Maria had always been adventurous and curious.

Let’s Learn about the Artist

Engraving of Maria Sibylla Merian from portrait by Georg Gsell, c. 1700, public domain


Maria (1647-1717), grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family ran an art studio, producing flower still lifes, engravings, and publishing books. Her stepfather taught her to draw and paint.

In the mid-1600s many people still believed in spontaneous generation—the idea that living creatures came from non-living things such as mud and rotting foods. But Maria Sibylla Merian had learned early to closely observe nature. At just 13, she raised silkworms to observe and draw each stage of their life cycle. She collected caterpillars of all colors and shapes to see what kind of moth or butterfly they’d become.

In 1679 Maria published the first of 2 volumes called, Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers. Eventually just called the Caterpillar Books, these showed her innovations in portraying insects. On each page Maria showed each stage of an insect’s life and the plants they preferred.

Maria was 52 when she set out on the greatest adventure of her life. She packed up her art supplies and braved the dangerous sea voyage to South America.

 Maria and her daughter Dorothea traveled on foot and by canoe to study insects there, discovering ants that formed rafts to float across water and tarantulas that ate humming birds. After 2 years they returned home, and Maria used her study book and specimens to publish in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, again available. Use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to see more of Maria’s illustrations.

In 1717, just after Maria died, Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, bought hundreds of Maria’s watercolors and her study book for his palace in St. Petersburg. Dorothea and her husband were hired to advise and arrange Peter’s growing collection, which became the Imperial, then Soviet, and finally the Russian Academy of Sciences. Other museums collected her works, too, but in the 1800s, many scientists dismissed the work of earlier naturalists like Maria. They didn’t think amateurs could have collected accurate data.

Then in the 1970s, the Soviet Academy of Sciences published many of her watercolors and her study book. Other museums searched their collections and exhibited her works. Entomologists found they could identify most of the insects in her paintings. Publishers printed new editions of her books. Maria Sibylla Merian is again being appreciated for her scientific and artistic work.

Let’s Learn about the Paintings

Maria used her observational skills to portray butterflies and other insects accurately. She was one of the first to show these in their own habitats, with host plants and their full life cycle from egg to caterpillar, pupa, and adult.

Maria’s artistic skills enabled her to paint the butterflies and other insects in vibrant color and pleasing compositions. Because of the purpose of showing the insects accurately, there is little depth in these illustrations, but the artist has made good use of the up-close space, not crowding things together.

Maria’s illustrations can be very dramatic, with half eaten fruits and leaves and ants battling spiders. Maria 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).

Tarantulas eating ants and a hummingbird, public domain

Let’s Enjoy the Paintings Together

Before telling children too much about the paintings, ask them to tell what they think is going on in the paintings and what tells them that.

Explain that before Maria, most illustrators showed specimens in long rows and only showed the adult stage.

  • Ask them how Maria’s paintings are different.
  • Ask them why it would be important to show all the stages of an insect’s life.

The illustrations are full of different types of line and shape, color and texture, and pattern—all provided by the Lord!

  • Ask children to find colors and patterns they like.
  • Which of these paintings do they like best?

A Little Inspiration from God’s Word

engraving of Jonathan Edwards, public domain

Jonathan Edwards(1703-1758) the great New England preacher who helped begin the First Great Awakening lived about the same time as Maria Sibylla. Like her Edwards enjoyed observing insects. In 1723 he wrote to the Royal Society of London about flying spiders he had observed. He even included sketches to illustrate his observations.

Edwards believed studying nature showed the wisdom and care of God

Maria Sibylla would have agreed. She once wrote, “The metamorphosis of caterpillars has happened so many times one is full of praise at God’s mysterious powers and the wonderful attention he pays to such insignificant little creatures.”

 Picture of Molly the Artsy Corgi

Molly investigating a painted lady butterfly

Before You Go

You can read a recent post I wrote for Write2Ignite, a group of Christian children’s writers. The post is “Find Some Ivory Tower Time to Create.”

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide, 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, You’ll also get a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit.

Visit Molly’s and my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.