Maria Merian’s Butterflies, Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh
A review by Duncan McMillan for The Scotsman.
Maria Merian was an artist and scientist who, at the end of the 17th century, in the very earliest days of modern science, defied patriarchy to pursue her curiosity about the natural world. Born in Frankfurt, her father, Matthaüs Merian, was an artist. He died when she was young, but although she married, in a very modern way she kept her own name. It was her step-father, Jacob Marell, however, who taught her close observation and exquisite technique. Art and science were then two aspects of a single discipline: the visual investigation and record of the world around us. Maria Merian, a superb investigator and a wonderful artist, was skilled in both aspects. “From my youth onwards I have been concerned with the study of insects,” she wrote. It had only very recently been recognised that the caterpillar and butterfly are actually the same creature and not two distinct animals, one of which emerged after feeding off the corpse of the other as Aristotle had proposed. The study of this mysterious process of insect metamorphosis became her abiding passion.
Merian at first made her living as an artist conventionally enough. In 1680, for instance, she published A New Book of Flowers, intended to provide models for embroidery and other decoration, but the previous year she had already published The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and their Particular Plant Nourishment. This book clearly showed her ambition to be more than a handmaid to the decorative arts. The last part of the title too ‘… and their particular plant nourishment’ also already demonstrates her originality. In her drawings she was careful to show the stages of an insect’s development, but also its particular host plant. Her original observation of this crucial and specific dependence of one species on another has earned her recognition as the first ecologist. Like her subsequent publications, this book was illustrated with prints from her watercolours which are both beautiful and truly scientific. These things are not incompatible but interdependent.
Indeed such exquisite scientific observation is beautiful in itself. George III, who was both learned and deeply interested in science, acquired superb examples of Maria Merian’s work and these are the subject of the latest exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Maria Merian’s Butterflies. The exhibition includes original watercolours as well as plates from her publications, but especially from her most important book, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam, published in 1705 with 60 plates. In 1685 Merian had moved to the Dutch Republic to join an austere sect called the Labadists. She then moved to Amsterdam. The Labadistes had close links to Surinam, a sugar producing Dutch colony on the Caribbean coast of South America. It was probably this connection that inspired her to travel there in search of butterflies and wonderful new examples of metamorphosis. So in 1699, after selling the contents of her studio, she set out with her daughter Dorothea for Surinam. The Scots had embarked on their ill-fated expedition to Darien on the opposite coast of Central America just the year before. The disaster that befell them is an indication of the challenge that Merian and her daughter faced. The circumstances were not quite comparable, certainly.
The Dutch presence was already firmly established. Nevertheless, the health hazards were the same. Once there, however, with great intrepidity braving snakes, scorpions, centipedes and on at least one occasion a poisonous caterpillar, she ventured into the wilderness in search of caterpillars. She then carefully nursed them through metamorphosis to watch, when she was lucky, their emergence as dazzling butterflies, recording it all in her drawings. Taken ill, perhaps with malaria, she had to cut short her stay, but returned with enough work to proceed with her book. Its plates are dazzling, but her comments are also wonderfully direct and revealing. Finding caterpillars of the Nymphidium butterfly on a papaya tree, for instance, she observes that “since the tree is tall and hollow it is not possible to climb up it, so I had it cut down.” If she could have done, would she have climbed the tree herself? A woman’s clothes at the turn of the 18th century were no more adapted to tree climbing than they can have been for strolling in the jungle, but she seems to have been quite undeterred by any such impediments. Returning to Amsterdam she began work on her book. First she etched the outlines. Then the plates were engraved and finally she and her two artist daughters, Johanna and Dorothea, coloured the finished plates. The book came in several styles in ascending cost. George III, of course, had only the best and so the examples here are painted on vellum in intense colours.
Her style has clearly evolved from still-life and she knew some of the leading still life painters of the day, but her compositions are never crowded. Clarity is vital to her purpose and so she composes simply against the white ground to record the stages of the butterfly or moth and its host plant. She does also include other incidental details however, other insects and various exotic fruits, but never in a way that distracts from her main purpose. Her technique is superb. To capture the iridescence on some of her butterflies, for instance, she paints with silver and so magically translates to the page the beauty of what she has seen. After the success of her major publication, she planned a similar book on the reptiles of Surinam. It was left unfinished, but a number of the plates that were produced are included here. Images like a spectacled cayman with a red and black coral snake twisting in its jaws capture the drama of the exotic world she had explored. The beauty of her prints are an indication of Merian’s accomplishment as an artist. Several species are called after her, however, and her reputation as a scientist has endured. Artist, scientist, traveller and businesswoman, she really was a remarkable person and this exhibition now brings back something of her story.