Museum Home Past Exhibitions Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science

June 10–August 31, 2008 at the Getty Center

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This exhibition charts the artistic and scientific explorations of German artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and her daughters Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. Enterprising and adventurous, these women raised the artistic standards of natural history illustration and helped transform the field of entomology, the study of insects. The exhibition presents books, prints, and watercolors by Merian and her contemporaries and features one of the greatest illustrated natural history books of all time, The Insects of Suriname.

Read more about Merian's life and work below, or explore highlights of the exhibition in the exhibition slideshow.

Iris, Narcissus, Fritillary / Flegel
Iris, Narcissus, Fritillary, and Hornet, Georg Flegel, about 1620–30. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin

learn_more See a close-up of the iris and hornet.


From about 1450, European artists increasingly took inspiration from nature, studying the details of insects, animals, flowers, and plants. Maria Sibylla Merian enriched this tradition.

The creator of this drawing, Georg Flegel, had a lasting impact on still life painting in Frankfurt, Merian's native city. Flegel portrayed crawling insects, especially wasps and beetles, with convincing naturalism. In this watercolor, the meticulously rendered hornet is proportionally larger than the ornamental flowers.

Pomegranate / Merian
Pomegranate, Maria Sibylla Merian, about 1665. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
learn_more See a close-up of the butterfly and the fallen pomegranate.


Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany, into a middle-class family of publishers and artists. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, published some of the most influential natural history texts of the 1600s.

Merian's stepfather, Jakob Marrel, had been trained by the artist and art dealer Georg Flegel (see image above). He introduced the young Merian to the art of miniature flower painting against her mother's will. Merian learned how to draw, mix paints, paint in watercolor, and make prints alongside Marrel's male pupils.

Merian's interest in insects was stimulated by the practice of silkworm breeding that was introduced by Frankfurt's silk trade. She began to observe caterpillars, moths, and butterflies, and by the age of 13 she had already observed the metamorphosis of a silkworm—a discovery that pre-dated published accounts by almost ten years.

Merian made this watercolor of a pomegranate plant emerging from the ground when she was not yet 20. She uniquely conveyed the passage of time by contrasting ripe fruit on the branches with the overripe fruit on the ground.

Spring Flowers in a Chinese Vase / Merian
Spring Flowers in a Chinese Vase in The New Book of Flowers, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1680. Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The New Book of Flowers

Merian married her stepfather's favorite pupil, Johann Andreas Graff (German, 1636–1701), at the age of 18 and later moved with him to his native Nuremberg. There, she instructed the daughters of respected citizens in embroidery and painting.

Merian ingeniously combined her backgrounds in publishing and flower painting to produce The New Book of Flowers, a plate from which is shown here. Comprised of three volumes, each with twelve plates of engravings, this book of flowers, wreaths, nosegays, and bouquets served as a model book for artists, embroiderers on silk, and cabinetmakers. With this function in mind, Merian portrayed each flower in this plate distinctly, without overlap.

Merian's flower books were heavily used and often damaged, and surviving, intact copies such as the one on view in this exhibition are exceedingly rare.

Plaintain with Metamorphosis of the Bright-Line Brown-Eye Moth / Merian
Plantain with Metamorphosis of the Bright-Line Brown-Eye Moth (study for The Caterpillar Book), Maria Sibylla Merian, 1679. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

The Caterpillar Book

While in Nuremberg, Merian wrote the first volume of her two-volume book Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment from Flowers (or simply The Caterpillar Book). Merian depicted moths and butterflies in various stages of metamorphosis, the process by which they transform from egg to caterpillar to adult. Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars' food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian's work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.

This study for The Caterpillar Book shows the caterpillar of the bright-line brown-eye moth on its host plant, the common plantain. The caterpillar is hard to find, as its vivid green color is perfectly camouflaged on the plantain's flowers.

Yellow Crown Imperial / Herolt
Yellow Crown Imperial, Johanna Helena Herolt, about 1696–97. Art Museum of the Federal State of Niedersachsen, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig

A Woman's Business in Amsterdam

By 1686 Merian had left her husband and moved with her two daughters and elderly mother to a religious community north of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. While living in this community, Merian pursued her research as a reflection of God's handiwork.

In 1691, after the financial collapse of the religious community, Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, the center of world trade and the third largest city in Europe. Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria learned their mother's art. The three women set up a studio together, painting plants, birds, and insects and making works of art based on the most compelling images in The Caterpillar Book.

Johanna Helena also developed her own career as a flower painter. This watercolor presents a highly accurate rendering of a magnificent species of fritillary. Like Johanna Helena's other portraits of flowers, it has a monumental presence that almost fills the sheet. The blossoms that encircle the stalk impart a sculptural quality that enhances the drawing's illusionism.

Tarantula / Merian
Branch of a Guava Tree with Leaf-cutter Ants, Army Ants, Pink-toed Tarantulas, Huntsman Spiders, and a Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1719. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute

The Insects of Suriname

Merian's artistic and scientific interests outgrew Amsterdam's supply of exotic plants and animals. In 1699, after selling most of her belongings, she set sail for the Dutch colony of Suriname with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. Maria Sibylla was 52, Dorothea Maria 21.

The jungles of South America were teeming with live specimens, which Merian studied for her most important publication, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (known as The Insects of Suriname). Merian's experiences in the city of Paramaribo are expressed in her accounts of vibrant butterflies, voracious caterpillars and ants, exotic fruits and vegetables, menacing reptiles, and treacherous explorations into the jungle. Her observations about the local climate, the use of plants and animals, and the Dutch colonists' treatment of slaves provide some of the earliest accounts of life in Suriname.

Merian's observations of the violence inherent to life in the Surinamese jungle inspired this image of a fierce, predatory tarantula. About these creatures, she wrote, "They are covered with hair all over and supplied with sharp teeth, with which they give deep dangerous bites, at the same time injecting a fluid into the wound…When they fail to find ants they take small birds from their nests and suck all the blood from their bodies." Later scientists criticized Merian's inaccurate depiction of four hummingbird eggs instead of three. However, her unabashed rendering of nature is true in spirit.

In 1701, poor health and Suriname's hot and humid climate forced Merian to return to Amsterdam. Her daughter Dorothea Maria probably assisted in making preparatory watercolors for The Insects of Suriname, and an unidentified Amerindian woman who accompanied them home likely provided details about Surinamese plants and animals. The book, published in 1705, was sold in three different versions, including a deluxe version with hand-colored transfer prints that retained the vivid naturalism of Merian's preparatory watercolors.

Spreading the Merian Name

Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717. Near the time of her death, her watercolors were purchased for Czar Peter the Great of Russia. Shortly thereafter, Dorothea published a third volume of The Caterpillar Book with 50 more of her mother's observations and an appendix on insects observed by Johanna Helena, who had moved to Suriname in 1711.

Around 1718 Dorothea moved to Saint Petersburg, where she continued to work as an artist. To ensure the circulation of her mother's work, she sold the plates of The Insects of Suriname to a Dutch publisher, who reissued the book in 1719 with 12 additional plates. Thanks to her daughters' continued diligence, Merian left a lasting mark on entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science has been organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum Het Rembrandthuis. The exhibition was supported by the Netherlands Culture Fund of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.