October 7, 2011

Maria Sibylla Merian

        for Ada Lovelace Day

        First of all, who's Ada Lovelace and why does she have a Day?  Briefly, Lovelace (1815-1852) was the first (theoretical) computer programmer - even before there were computers!  She was an incredibly smart, gifted mathematician at a time when women didn't generally have the option of a career in science or technology.  Ada Lovelace Day was started  as a way to celebrate female role models in scientific fields.  You can find out more about Lovelace here and about the Day named after her at its official site.  One part of the day is for people to blog about a woman in the sciences, and I thought I'd join this noble cause.
        Now, technically I am not a woman in the sciences.  I have no degrees in any scientific field, no one pays me for my research or inventions or my work in technology…  But I've always been interested in science, especially natural history.
And, of course, I am a mother of a couple of curious kids, and that means there's always scientific research and observation going on at our house.  One of the chief areas of our scientific studies is the natural world: birds, plants, insects…  And that brings me to Maria Sibylla Merian.  After all, this is not a science blog.  This is a blog about art (oh, and fantasy, but that's another story!)  And while we tend to think that women "couldn't" be scientists before the twentieth century, in fact there have always been loads of women naturalists -- and many of them were artists, too.  Observing and sketching the natural world was one of the more conventionally acceptable ways for scientifically-inclined women to work.  But conventional Maria Sibylla Merian most definitely was not.
        Merian (1647-1717) was the daughter of an engraver and printer, and the step-daughter of a still life painter, who encouraged her artistic talents.  The subjects she chose to draw and paint as a child were specimens of insects and plants that she collected in her neighborhood.  Some artists would have been content to draw pretty pictures, but Merian was a scientist as well as an artist, and she carefully studied those insects, especially caterpillars, moths and butterflies.  (Only a true scientist could appreciate the bugs eating her roses!)  She was the first to study how the life cycle of moths and butterflies really worked, and to observe all the stages and the plants associated with the stages.  And she made beautiful, detailed drawings in her sketch books.
        She married a painter, but twenty years later, at the age of 38, she left him and lived with her mother and two daughters.  (Some years after that they were officially divorced.)  In 1699 Merian and her unmarried daughter travelled to Surinam.  She stayed for two years, studying the plants and insects there.  During her life she published a number of gorgeously illustrated books of her observations, and her classifications of many insects are still in use today.  Her books were not embraced at first by scholars of the day because most were not written in Latin (and presumably because she was a woman), but they were much valued by the wealthy for their beautiful block printed illustrations.  (Most of her books were self-published, too.  Just saying.)
        Merian was among the first to study insects seriously, she was the first to describe accurately the relationships between certain insects and plants, she was the first to identify many of the insects and plants of the Surinam area, she was among the first to pay attention to the effects of one organism on others in its environment, and she was among the few who could mix serious science and truly masterful art.  The wood block prints of her drawings (usually hand-colored) are celebrated as a unique blending of scientific accuracy with beauty of composition and execution.  She's an inspiration to anyone with an interest in art or science, but especially those of us who love both.
        (And just imagine what Merian would have done had she discovered any of my time flies in her travels!)



[Pictures: "American cherry," wood block print with watercolor from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705;
Lily, wood block print from Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis by Merian, 1717;
Rose, wood block print from Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung by Merian, 1679;
Cassava, wood block print with watercolor from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium by Merian, 1705;
Grossularia Hortensis, wood block print from Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung by Merian, 1679.
Pictures are taken (with much appreciation) from the Center for Retrospective Digitalization, Göttingen (GDZ).]

1 comment:

  1. was thrilled to see today's google doodle - merian was a real inspiration, breaking through barriers as a woman and a scientist. i've seen an original copy of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, and it was stunning, she's always been a personal favourite of mine. good to see her get some recognition.

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