In the first article about Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), I left her sailing to Suriname in South America at the age of fifty-two, with her daughter and a mission to paint the insects of the Dutch colony, in particular the relationships between insects and their food plants, and their lifecycles.
Before she left the Netherlands, Merian had studied several large collections of insects and plants from Suriname. She realised that, in almost every case, there was no knowledge of their different stages, an area which she intended to study and paint during the years that she was to be there. In June 1701, her stay was curtailed when she suffered malaria, and she returned to Amsterdam to recover. Then in 1705, she published her masterwork, the fruit of her studies in the tropical heat: Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, the lifecycles and metamorphoses of insects of Suriname.
Her watercolour Plant Study with Peppers from 1701-05 was, as usual, painted on vellum. It was included in an album of 91 paintings titled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects &c. This shows an Indian pepper plant, with all four stages in the lifecycle of the moth which lives with and from it: the eggs are seen inside a fruit at the right, the caterpillar at the foot, a pupa at the left (on the green pepper), and the adult moth above.
I’m afraid I can’t identify the plant or moth shown in Merian’s Strohblume und Castilde from 1705, but suspect that she saw and painted them when in Suriname. Strohblume translates as strawflower, which doesn’t ring any bells.
Plate 43 from her book on the insects of Suriname shows what a modern biologist would recognise as a small ecosystem centred on one plant, the guava. These ants look ferocious, and the large black spiders are tarantulas. The pink tips to their legs show that they are pinktoe tarantulas of the species Avicularia avicularia, which Merian would have encountered in Suriname. Fortunately, they are among the less venomous of the tarantula family, as if that would have been any consolation. One of them has caught and killed a tiny hummingbird.
Plate 45 shows another plant in Suriname with the complete lifecycle of the moth. Its eggs are laid in a seed pod (right), hatch and grow into a green caterpillar (centre right), then form the pupa (below) from which the adult moth (top right) emerges. It has an unusually long proboscis which appears responsible for pollinating the flowers, paying back the damage that its eggs and caterpillar do to their host.
Merian’s undated Parrot Tulip, Auriculas, and Red Currants, with a Magpie Moth, its Caterpillar and Pupa is another of her superb watercolours painted on vellum, and appears to have been made much closer to home. These flowers and insects are all European, the tulips perhaps a reference to the ‘tulip mania’ which swept Holland earlier in the seventeenth century.
I can’t see any of this magpie moth’s eggs, but the caterpillar and pupa are shown at the foot. This tulip is perhaps one of Merian’s most spectacular flowers (detail below).
In 1715, when she was in her late sixties, Merian suffered a stroke, but it couldn’t stop her from painting. She died in the city of Amsterdam in early 1717. But that wasn’t an end to her work: her daughter published a further collection of engravings of her mother’s paintings, and others used her original work in their illustrations for well over a century.
John Pass’s 1807 coloured etching of Tree Cotton (Gossypium arboreum): flowering and fruiting stem with caterpillar is based upon one of Merian’s paintings. Her lifecycle illustrations must have inspired countless artists and illustrators, as well as providing a sound basis for the science of entomology. Her understanding of the commensal relationships between insects and their food plants was one of the founding studies in what became ecology. I can’t think of another artist who has had such extensive influence from such wonderful paintings.
Wikipedia which has links to other sites featuring her published work.