Maria Sibylla Merian, a German artist, was born Apr. 2, 1647. Maria was the daughter of Matthaeus Merian, an engraver and artist of Frankfurt, and she was trained as a painter. As a young girl she was fascinated by caterpillars and their transformation into butterflies and moths, a strange passion, but one that she would never lose. After a marriage that ended in divorce, but which produced two loving and artistically talented daughters, Maria decided, at the age of 52, to undertake a trip to Surinam in South America, where the Dutch had long maintained a colony. Accompanied by her younger daughter (the elder daughter had married), Maria spent all her waking hours drawing the flowers and foliage, as well as the insects and caterpillars, of the tropics. She planned to stay for 5 years, but when her health came under attack after less than two years, probably from malaria, she returned home and started converting her paintings into engravings for publication. The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam appeared in print in 1705, and it is one of the great natural history books of all time, as well as the first significant scientific book published by a woman in the West. Each of the 60 plates depicts a plant, usually in multiple stages of flowering and fruiting, as well as at least one insect, also in various stages of metamorphosis. Five plates, selected more or less at random (they are all spectacular) may be seen above.

Our entire volume of the Metamorphosis has been digitized, so you can look at each of the 60 engravings, as well as the accompanying text, if you wish; just click here and scroll down the series of thumbnails to the right.

Merian’s Metamorphosis was featured in our 2005 exhibition, Women’s Work, where you can learn more about the life and works of this amazing artist and naturalist.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City