The lovely image above, of insects in different life stages, came from the hand of Maria Sibylla Merian, an early German naturalist who exemplifies the diy approach to observation, documentation, and dissemination of new knowledge in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Individuals at this time sought to document the worlds that were slipping away as quickly as they were being “discovered,” and the talented Maria Sibylla Merian was one of these self-taught scholars.
The daughter of one printer and eventual wife of another, Maria grew up surrounded by the stimulating world of scholarship, and all her life worked to satisfy her own intellectual curiosities concerning the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths. The methods that she used–keeping caterpillars in boxes, feeding and watching each change, and documenting her observations in word and images–resulted in studies that were unique in the early field of natural history. Her illustrations of both plants and insect life were reproduced in fine engravings in the books that she wrote and printed. And as an older lady, she even traveled to Surinam in search of undiscovered species that she could collect, study, and write about.
I recommend Kim Todd’s new biography of Maria Sibylla Merian for its arresting portrayal of this independent, scientifically curious, and artistically talented woman who is primarily known today only through the books that she produced. You can also read more about her in Natalie Zemon Davis’s Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives.
If you are interested in seeing more of her work, look at the three engravings by Maria that are in the NYPL Digital Gallery. Additionally, NYPL has numerous editions of her books, including a new edition of the watercolor artworks by Maria that are held in St. Petersburg (in the Art and Architecture Collection in the Schwarzman Building). Even if you aren’t into creepy and flighty bugs, Maria’s story remains compelling and her work well worth a closer look.