MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN: The Sublime Metamorphoses of Butterflies

Maria Sibylla Merian by Jacob Marrell (Maria’s Step-Father) Still-Life Painter

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), artist and self-taught scientist, emerged as Europe’s first person to document the interrelationship between insects and their environment. In her capturing, nurturing, studying, and illustrating the life cycles of butterflies and moths, Maria: 1) advanced the study of insects (entomology), 2) pioneered the science of the relationship of organisms to their environment (ecology), 3) embarked on the first transatlantic voyage undertaken purely for scientific research, and 4) blended art with science in original publications. She remarkably distinguished herself in seventeenth-century Europe, at a time when women were offered few opportunities, scientific knowledge was sparse, and religious and societal mandates prodigious.

Maria grew up in Frankfurt, Germany in two successive families engaged in the trades of publishing, engraving, and painting. Her step-father, Jacob Marrell, recognizing her innate gifts, taught her the skills needed for painting and engraving. Once she became competent in still-life paintings, she began adding insects to her watercolors, for they fascinated her and provided action.

Still life with fruit by Maria Sibylla Merian

Europeans believed insects arose from the “spontaneous generation of mud or rot,” an idea essentially unchallenged since Aristotle first theorized it in the third-century BCE. So when Maria began raising her own silkworms at age 13, it hinted at impropriety and doubtlessly raised concerns in her mother who would have known of witch trials within her lifetime. Attempting to steer Maria onto a more befitting path, her parents chose one of her step-father’s apprentices, 10 years her senior, for her to marry.

Tulip by Maria Sibylla Merian

With the birth of her first daughter Johanna, Maria’s husband moved the family back to his home in Nuremberg, where she helped him open a publishing shop. Women were forbidden to join craft guilds, barred from universities, and prohibited from painting landscapes, nudes, or using oils. Abiding these limitations, Maria began teaching young women artists and painting decorative floral motifs with watercolors, all to supplement income. Demand led her to publish a book of elegant floral prints to be used as patterns―New Book of Flowers. Uniquely Maria, on nearly every page she depicted insects among the flowers. Beautiful and useful, the book sold well.

In 1678, she gave birth to her second child, Dorothea. With an infant and 10 year old in hand, Maria expeditiously dispatched family duties to allow time for scouting the rich gardens outside Nuremberg Castle. There she captured butterflies and caterpillars, put them in boxes at home, and tended them for observation―sometimes staying up all night waiting to draw the next stage. She confirmed that butterflies and moths all pass through four stages―egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult.

Her meticulous studies led her to publish, The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars and Their Particular Nourishment from Flowers (1679). This was transformative in the world of science―for although a few others preceded her in explaining metamorphosis―she became the first to depict each insect’s transmutation on its host plant, unveiling their interrelationship. (The term ecology did not come into use for another two hundred years.) Her text discussed the life cycles of 50 plus moths and butterflies; she engraved the prints herself, and under special order hand-painted many. Although she would always suffer a handicap in reputation as a self-taught scientist, with her Caterpillar publication she achieved prominence.

Emperor moth on a cherry branch from Maria’s Caterpillar book.

Meanwhile, her relationship with her husband was unraveling. Without any existing personal diary, it is hard to know exactly when and why marital discord began. But when her step-father died, she seized the opportunity to move back to Frankfurt, ostensibly to assist her mother. Her husband visited, beseeching her to return to Nuremberg and she refused. Continuing to work and publishing a second edition of Caterpillars, she stayed in Frankfurt with her mother and daughters another four years.

Over the next several years, Maria made a couple of life-altering decisions. Leaving Frankfurt, she took her mother and daughters to join her half-brother at a Pietist commune in north Netherlands founded by Labadists―arriving at Walta Castle without worldly possessions (including her painting tools). Perhaps she had a true desire to practice a more austere form of spirituality or perhaps she just wanted more separation from her husband―or both. During the six years cut off from the outside world, both her brother and mother died and she became aware of the serious limitations the commune posed for her daughters. However, when her husband came demanding her return and she refused, the community elders supported her. Finally, he gave up and divorced her. At which point she made an about-face and moved to Amsterdam―Europe’s progressive center for science, art and commerce

She enthusiastically inhaled the freer air. She ran her own business, trained apprentices, and painted whatever she wanted. With both daughters educated as artists and naturalists, all three set up shop, painted, and sold cases of preserved butterflies. “Curiosity cabinets” (later to become museums) had become all the rage and Maria sought wealthy collectors who paid her to paint representations of their unique, and sometimes bizarre, collections. Collecting, painting, buying, and selling, Maria and her daughters thrived.

Johanna launched her own artistic career and married a merchant with trading connections in Surinam (a small South American equatorial country). Spellbound by images from Surinam, Maria caught the exotic fever and began pondering a scientific mission. It would be a daring endeavor: no one had ever undertaken a transatlantic journey purely for scientific reasons; no woman had made such a trip without a male companion; and funding would require selling nearly everything. So it was against great odds when Maria and 21 year old Dorothea set sail in 1699. They lodged in tiny berths, with little to no privacy from the men on board, ate meager meals, and emptied their chamber pots overboard. Two months tossing at sea finally landed them in Surinam―a Dutch sugar plantation.

An astonishing array of plants, insects, birds, and animals greeted Maria. Yet her enthusiasm was dampened under the onslaught of suffocating heat; docks crowded with enslaved Africans being bought, sold, and branded; indigenous Arawaks being enslaved for labor; and the myopic focus of the Dutch plantation owners on sugar. Under the blight of colonization, the Dutch continued to import and enslave thousands to provide sugar to the Europeans until slavery was outlawed in 1863.

Disturbed and still determined to do what she came for, Maria dove into her research. She sought the advise of Arawak women about local fauna and flora―shocked to learn they used certain seeds to help abort pregnancies. She hired indigenous servants to hack paths into jungles where she toiled in her long black dress and corset to uncover new species.

She sketched native plants like pineapples, bananas, papayas, and vanilla pods along with the creatures they nurtured. It was laborious, conditions challenging, and at age 52 (already considered elderly for her day), she became ill―probably malaria. Symptoms worsened and her venture had to be terminated just short of two years.

Back home, still feverish, she faced the daunting task of collating all her notes and drawings. In 1705, all her devoted efforts culminated in her opus: The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam―a book unlike any before it. Through exquisite, detailed, and scientifically accurate drawings, she depicted and described 90 new insect metamorphoses and 53 species of plants. These were full-page compositions, engraved onto copper plates, printed in black-and-white, and bound into books. Wealthy collectors paid her extra for hand-painted copies. Reviews praised it and in following years, John James Audubon imitated her style and Carl Linnaeus relied extensively on her discoveries in his system for naming organisms.

Menelaus blue morpho butterfly on pomegranate in Maria’s Surinam book
Maria Sibylla Merian by Jacobus Houbraken

The book was truly her butterfly moment. With declining health and wavering finances, Maria continued to work as best she could until she suffered a stroke and died two years later in 1717, at age 69. Ensuring her mother’s legacy, Dorothea contracted with a bookseller to keep her mother’s books and plates in print. At or near the time of Maria’s death, Peter the Great was in Amsterdam and instructed an artist Georg Gsell, to purchase some of Maria’s works. Dorothea married Georg and they moved to St. Petersburg where she continued to paint her mother’s special editions. Peter the Great put Dorothea in charge of decorating his room of wonder, which evolved into the Imperial Academy of Sciences and later the Soviet Academy of Sciences.



  • Heard, Kate, Maria Merian’s Butterflies, Royal Collection Trust.
  • Pomeroy, Sarah B. and Kathirithamby, Jeyaraney, Maria Sibylla Merian, Artist/Scientist/Adventurer, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
  • Sidman, Joyce, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
  • Todd, Kim, Chrysalis and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, A Harvest Book Harcourt, Inc., 2007.

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2 thoughts on “MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN: The Sublime Metamorphoses of Butterflies”

  1. Maureen McMeekin says:

    This is an incredible and imaginative story taking me on a journey as I learned of her life her odyssey from an oppressive husband her courage moving from one country starting from scratch to become a highly independent and successful enterpreneur traveling across the seas to following her passion. Wow what an extraordinary woman. Thank you for this wonderful escape well written as always…

  2. Michelle says:

    What an inspirational read! Though so many of these stories of remarkable women involve accounts of immense struggle and toil, underneath it all I find so much hope and strength! Thank you for sharing another wonderful memoir, Justine. I look forward to your next essay.

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