Maria Sibylla Merian – a pioneering woman

Maria Sibylla Merian – a pioneering woman

A woman and daughter travelling by ship to South America to learn about and document insect and plant life would be considered a courageous journey at any time, but did you know that one talented woman and her daughter did just that in 1699? When German-born naturalist, etymologist and botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian was in her fifties, she and her daughter embarked on a perilous voyage to the tropical colony of Suriname on the north-eastern coast of South America. This was where, she created her brilliant botanical drawings of the fascinating plant and animal life she observed. Merian (1647 – 1717) was perhaps the first person ever to plan a journey rooted solely in science.

One of the most brilliant botanical illustrators the world has ever seen, Maria was born into a family of artists. Her father was an engraver and publisher, who died when she was very young. Her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, a flower and still life painter. Young Maria started painting her first insects and plant at age thirteen, and she always had access to books on natural history.

Maria had always been fascinated by insects. In those days, people did not know much about the origins of life, and insects were a mystery. In many cases, they even thought these creatures just spontaneously appeared from nowhere. Maria’s investigations into silkworms led her conclude that butterflies came from caterpillars. She married her stepfather’s apprentice, and continued to paint and to create embroidery patterns, as well as giving drawing lessons to wealthy students, who allowed her to paint, draw and document the species in their gardens.

The couple had two daughters, but it was not a happy marriage. She moved to a religious commune which practiced celibacy where she lived with her daughters, and her husband divorced her in 1692.

In 1699 she was granted permission to travel to Suriname, an area now known as French, Dutch and British Guiana, with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. She paid for the journey by selling 255 of her own paintings. They spent two years travelling in the Dutch colony and sketching local animals and plants. Although she herself was a slave owner, she did criticise the Dutch planters’ appalling treatment of the local people and black slaves. While she was in Suriname, she recorded local plant names and how they were used.

When malaria forced her to return to Europe, she went to Holland, opening a shop where she sold her specimens and published a collection of engravings. Her book Metamophosis Insectorum Surinemensium is about the insects of Suriname.

In 1715, she was left paralysed by a stroke and became as pauper, as she was unable to work.

This was a tragic end for a determined, independent woman who succeeded in pursuing her passion at a time when only men received royal or government funding for scientific expeditions. Understandably, her self-funded adventure received some criticism, however, she is still remembered today as the first scientist to study, classify and illustrate many previously unknown animals and plants in Surinam. Her work has recently enjoyed a renaissance and I do hope you will be inspired to search for her illustrations online. They are truly beautiful.

Photo by

Juliet Allaway 

Written by editor