Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2021 Issue

Maria Sibylla Merian, A Rare Species Of Woman


Image from the National Library of France collection.


The Bilbiothèque Nationale de France, or French National Library (BNF) ran a series of portraits of “singular women” on their website last March. It featured the extraordinary Maria Sibylla Merian. The BNF gave access to her digitized engravings dedicated to naturalism. For those who don’t know her, suffice to say that she was a hell of a woman! Well, it doesn’t suffice, actually. Let’s explore her life of exploration.




Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) led an incredible life of passion and liberty—especially for a woman of her time. Born in Germany in a family of artists (she was the daughter of renowned engraver Matthaüs Merian the Older), she developed a taste for painting from a very young age. She was 8 when she drew her first watercolours, representing the caterpillars she’d observe in her garden. When her father died, her mother remarried Jacob Marrell, a painter who taught his stepchildren how to paint. Maria was also the cousin of Jacob Christoph Le Blon, who invented the first process for printing in three colours. As Pauline Laurent and Luc Menapace underline on their BNF blog dedicated to Merian: “The fact that Maria Sibylla mastered engraving technics is tightly linked to her familial and professional backgrounds.”


Maria Sibylla moved to Nuremberg with her husband, where she published her first work in 1679, a series of engravings showing the relationship between caterpillars and their respective host plants. At 38, she did an incredible thing for the time: she divorced her husband. Actually, the BNF states: “She declared herself a widow while her husband was still alive.” She joined a Jesuit congregation in Holland with her daughter, where she came across a collection of butterflies that came from the Dutch colony of Surinam, in South America. She then took another unbelievable step: aged 52, she embarked for Paramaribo, Surinam—a naturalist trip.


Travellers were few in the late 17th century; learnt ones even fewer—learnt and lone travellers even more so—and female learnt lone travellers were simply nonexistent except for Maria Sibylla Merian. She was with her daughter, actually; but by “lone” we mean without official appointment. The two women reached Paramaribo in July 1699 and Maria started to explore her surroundings, drawing every insect and plant she’d come across. “Mocked by the European colonists who cared about nothing but the cultivation of sugar,” Laurent and Menapace write, “she became close to the African slaves and the Natives.” After all, she belonged herself to what we call today a “minority”.


By 1701, she was back to Amsterdam with her daughter. She took several years to complete her masterpiece, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705)—a series of 60 engravings. She published it herself, raising the necessary funds by selling her original paintings. The BNF website underlines: “The book didn’t sell well, but it brought her posthumous recognition.” Laurent and Menapace add: “Most of the insects, amphibians and reptiles represented there were unknown to naturalists (...). She also introduced several unknown, or ill known vegetal species such as the red water willow (Pachystachys coccinea).” Her engravings are stunning because they are at the crossroad between naturalism and art. As shown with the digitized copies on the BNF website, they are gorgeous, powerful and intense—in a word, lively. “Her works (most of them published after she died by her daughter) remained a reference in the domain of scientific illustration for centuries,” Laurent and Menapace sum up. “She proved it was possible to represent small animals and insects by blowing them up on paper as long as they remained in proportions with their environment. As a matter of fact, she was the very first one to draw the species she studied directly in their natural habitats.” Totally forgotten during the 19th century, she’s been revived for the past 50 years. Reprints of her books are now available and wallpapers are even made out of her drawings.

One of the most crucial creatures described in her works is probably a very rare, and now extinct species of woman—let’s call it Mariamus Sibyllarius Merianus; suffice to say that it was a wild and fiery flower that nothing could stop from blooming.


Have a look at her work here: https://gallica.bnf.fr/conseils/content/maria-sibylla-merian


Thibault Ehrengardt







Posted On: 2021-11-01 00:54
User Name: mairin

An interesting fact about the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, one of my heroines dating from the 1980s, was the time she spent with the great Dutch prodigy, Anna Maria Van Schurman, and the exiled community of Jean de Labadie, an ecstatic, defrocked Jesuit. Merian, with her young daughter, was a bold & brave independent woman at this time, traveling 'at large' in often inhospitable settings. While she didn't remain long with the Labadists, her short-term residence with that group continues to tell us much about her values, friendships, and personal ideology.
- Maureen E. Mulvihill, Collector. RBH Guest Writer.

Posted On: 2021-11-01 09:23
User Name: sjbutt295

The Royal Collection has a fine assembly of her pictures of butterflies & held an exhibition at the Queen's Gallery some years ago. See;

Posted On: 2021-11-02 19:54

Thanks for your comments! And the engravings from Queen's Gallery are gorgeous!

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. Carolina Parrot. Plate 26. Hand-colored aquatint and engraved plate from Audubon's <i>Birds of America.</i> $80,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Francisco Henrique Carls. [Album de Pernambuco e seus Arrabaldes]. Fifty-three chromolithographed plates of landscape, town views and more of the state of Pernambuco, northeast Brazil. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Captain Thomas Davies, after. Group of 5 engraved topographical scenes of North American waterfalls. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <center><br>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Maps & Atlases<br>Natural History<br>& Color Plate Books<br>December 9, 2021</b>
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> William R. Morley. Morley's Map of New Mexico. Large lithographed pocket map with original hand-color in outline. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> Frederick William Beechey, et al. <i>The Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage; Compiled from the Collections and Notes Made by Captain Beechey…</i> $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann, Dec. 9:</b> ZUDA ROKASHI (Priest Hotan.) Nansenbushu Bankoku Shoka No Zu. Woodblock wall map of the world on 16 sheets joined. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> Latin Book of Hours, Langres around 1490. Est: €50,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>T. Livius, <i>Römische Historien,</i> 1533. Est: €12,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>G. Mendel, <i>Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden,</i> 1865-66. Est: €30,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Verard, Book of Hours, around 1488. Est: €30,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>A. Ortelius, <i>Theatrum orbis terrarum,</i> 1601. Est: €80,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br><i>Der Sturm,</i> 1910-1916. Est: €16,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Cronica van der hilliger Stat Coellen,</i> 1499. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>M. Catesby, <i>Piscium serpentum insectorum,</i> 1777. Est: €25,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>W. Grohmann, <i>Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners,</i> 1926. Est: €20,000
    <b><center> Ketterer Rare Books<br>Auction on November 29th</b>
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>P. Borgo, <i>Aritmetica mercantile,</i> 1491. Est: €16,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b><br>D. Roberts, <i>Egypt and Nubia,</i> 1846-49. Est: €8,000
    <b>Ketterer Rare Books, Nov. 29:</b> <i>Estampes,</i> with the suite by P. Picasso, 1950. Est: €15,000
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Zang Tumb Tuuum:<br>la révolution futuriste<br>Online Auction<br>30 November – 7 December</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 18:</b> The "Official Edition" of the United States Constitution and the First Printing of the Final Text of the Constitution, 1787. $15,000,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. I Paroliberi Futuristi. 1914-1915. 8 p. Unique corrected proofs, for an anthology that remained unpublished. €40,000 to €60,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Studenti in Lettere. Università. 1915. Seminal work, featured in 3 historical futurist exhibitions. €20,000 to €30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Cangiullo, Francesco. Chiaro di luna. Circa 1915. Collage and gouache on paper. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Nov. 30 – Dec. 7:</b> Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manicure. Faire les ongles à l'Italie. Circa 1915. A fantastic parody of an advertising poster. €20,000 to €30,000.
  • <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 47. Roosevelt, Theodore. Photograph inscribed to Morris J. Hirsch. May 7th 1918. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 178. Whitman, Walt. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York: [Printed for the author], 1955. First edition in the first issue binding. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 38. Mather, Cotton. <i>Magnalia Christi Americana; or, the Ecclesiastical History of New-England.</i> London: Printed for Thomas Parkhurst, 1702. First edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 55. Taylor, Zachary. Autograph letter signed as President-Elect. Baton Rouge: January 15, 1849. $5,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 203. Picasso, Pablo. <i>Verve</i> Vol. V, Nos. 19-20. Paris: Editions Verve, 1948. Inscribed on the title page by Picasso. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>December 9</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 211. Domergue, Jean-Gabriel. L'Ete a Monte Carlo. Lithographed poster, Lucien Serre & Cie, Paris, circa 1937. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 105. Manuscript Illumination attr. to Neri da Rimini. Large excised initial "N" from a choirbook, extensively historiated. [Likely Rimini: first quarter of the 14th century]. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 40. McKenney, Thomas L. and Hall, James. <i>History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs.</i> Philadelphia: Rice, Rutter & Co., 1870. $3,00
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 222. Searle, Ronald. [Pets--a dog, cats and a parrot-- surrounded by books, and inspecting a globe, perhaps planning global domination]. Original drawing, 17 3/8 x 13 1/2 inches. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 98. Faden, William; Scull, Nicholas and George Heap. A Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia, Survey'd by N. Scull and G. Heap. London: William Faden, 12 March 1777. $3,000 to $5,000.
  • <i>Der Sturm.</i> 1922. Sold October 2021 for € 13,000.
    Diophantus Alexandrinus, <i>Arithmeticorum libri sex.</i> 1670. Sold October 2021 for € 18,000.
    <i>Cozzani Ettore e altri, l’Eroica. Tutto il pubblicato.</i> Sold October 2021 for € 11,000.
    Newton Isaac, <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> 1714. Sold October 2021 for € 7,500.
    Manetti Saverio, <i>Storia naturale degli uccelli.</i> 1767-1776. Sold April 2021 for € 26,000.

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