Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Happy Birthday Maria!

Holly Trostle Brigham "Maria Sybilla Merian: Metamorphosis" 2010 Private Collection

I was astonished when a run-of-the-mill Google Search this morning showed me that today (April 2) is the birthday of the incredible Maria Sibylla Merian: she is the Google Doodle for today. Way go, Google! Anna Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a German-Swiss artist and naturalist with strong ties to Holland. The confusion surrounding her nationality stems from her having been born in Frankfurt to a Swiss father and a German mother. Merian also spent some time living in Holland, where her artist/art dealer stepfather had business ties, and was later sponsored by the Dutch government to  make a historic and ground-breaking naturalizing expedition to Surinam.

artist unknown "Maria Sybilla Merian" date and location unknown

Merian's biological father,  Matthäus Merian der Ältere, a Swiss engraver and publisherdied in 1650 and her mother remarried, to artist/dealer Jacob Marrel. Marrel encouraged Merian in her natural affinity for drawing and painting. In 1665 Merian married Johan Graff, one of her stepfather's apprentices. Two years later she had her first child, and the family moved to Nuremberg which was Graff's hometown. Merian continued painting and drawing and because women in Germany at that time were not allowed to earn a living as fine artists, she used her considerable gifts to make design books for embroidery. She also contributed to the family's income by giving drawing lessons to the unmarried daughters of wealthy families. 

After a time, she also continued her serious work of botanical artist. She published, in Holland where no such prohibitions against women practicing art existed, several collections of engravings of plants, in 1675, 1677, and 1680. Even more unusually, she collected and observed live insects and created detailed drawings to illustrate insect metamorphosis. At that point in history, insects were called "beasts of the devil" and not believed to be of much scientific interest.  The life cycle and metamorphosis of insects was largely unknown, with the general thought being that they were "born of mud", through spontaneous generation.  Merian's careful observation of their life cycles was completely ground-breaking. Her work was popular with non-scientists because she wrote not in latin but in the vernacular. "However, it is should be noted  that her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin." (Wikipedia)

Despite her lack of Latin, in 1699 the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to make a naturalizing expedition to their colony of Surinam accompanied by the younger of her two daughters, Dorothea Maria Graff, who was also a practicing artist. The two women spent over two years traveling around the colony of Surinam, sketching the flora and fauna and recording local native names for plants as well as their uses. Merian outspokenly criticized the Dutch planters' treatment of their black slaves and the indiginous people. A severe bout of Malaria forced the two women to return to the Netherlands in 1701. In 1705 she published Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, a ground-breaking and astonishingly beautiful study of the insects of Surinam. 

artist unknown "Maria Sybilla Merian" date unknown

Sadly, Merian suffered a severe stroke in 1715. She was unable to work after that with much efficacy. Local registers of the time list her as "pauper." She died in Amsterdam in 1717. Her daughter Dorothea posthumously published a collection of her mother's work, the Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis. This impressive collection helped preserve Merian's work and her reputation. She fell into obscurity for a while but was rediscovered in the last half of the 20th Century. She has now received numerous honors, especially in Germany, where her image appears on bank notes and stamps, and many schools are named after her. Happy Birthday Maria Sibylla Merian...we honor you!

Although, in fact, we have no real idea what you look like, dear Maria! If you search for portraits of the artist and you will find a goodly number, none of which look at all like the same person. Holly Trostle Brigham (b. 1965) who painted the imaginative lead image in this post is a contemporary artist whose work focuses on women and history. An alum of Smith College, George Washington University and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Brigham is represented by ACA Galleries in New York City. Her website can be seen here

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