Reissue of the 17th Century Masterpiece That Turned Insect Studies Into Art



photo: Koninklijke Bibliotheek
Reissue of the 17th Century Masterpiece That Turned Insect Studies Into Art
post by
Jonas Van Boxel

She was an insect studies pioneer, explorer and artist. Her work inspired Linnaes and Goethe, and was collected by Peter The Great. Publisher Lannoo pays tribute to Maria Sibylla Merian with a facsimile of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, her masterpiece. A first print edition from 1705 will be on display in our Museum until the 28th of October.

‘A naturalist who was also the greatest botanical and insect painter that has ever lived.’ British author and traveller Redmond O’Hanlon clearly is a fan of the 17th century painter and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. Marieke van Delft, curator of Pre-1800 books at the National Library of the Netherlands, is just as thrilled: ‘A first print copy of her book from our collection is one of our absolute showpieces.’

Maria Sibylla Merian was born in Frankfurt, in 1647. Her father, engraver Matthäus Merian, died when she was 3 years old. Her mother remarried with painter Jacob Marrel, and Merian grew up in his workshop. She learned how to paint with water paint, which was considered more feminine than oil paint. From a young age, she was obsessed about insects and plants that she had to collect for the still lives of her stepfather. Soon, she started her own caterpillar collection. In a remarkable scientific fashion, she captured and described how the caterpillars transformed into butterflies.

Inspiration for Linnaeus

When she was 52, Merian travelled to Suriname with her youngest of two daughters. There, she was one of the first to describe the local fauna and flora. In 1701, the two were forced to return to their home in Amsterdam prematurely: Maria had caught a tropical illness. They did not return empty-handed, but with boxes and boxes filled with notes and insects.

The result of the adventurous journey to Suriname was published in 1705. The Transformation of Surinamese Insects (English translation of the book) is an extraordinary work with beautiful aquarelles, on which insects and plants are portrayed on scale. Its influence was big: the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, creator of the modern naming system of living organisms, used the book extensively as a source.

In honour of Maria Sibylla Merian’s 300th death anniversary, Lannoo publishes a facsimile of her masterpiece. Included in the issue are several essays about her life and work, and an index of all the plants and insects on her drawings.

You can buy Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium for only €89 instead of €119, with free shipping in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Use the code ‘dinomuseum’ (until 31 December 2016)! Visit for more information.

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