Maria Sibylla Merian
A Phenomenal Woman
Today we remember a phenomenal woman: Maria Sibylla Merian.
She was born April 2, 1647. As a frame of reference, Isaac Newton was only a few years older than her. Unlike Newton, Merian’s work was largely forgotten. However, over the past century, her work has made its way to us.
Merian has the it factor. In 2011, Janet Dailey, a retired teacher, and artist from Springfield, Illinois became so captivated by Merian’s life story that she started a Kickstarter campaign to follow Merian’s footsteps to the mecca of her best work - Surinam, in South America. In 2013, Merian's birthday was commemorated with a "Google Doodle”.
Merian would have delighted in our modern-day effort to plant milkweed for the Monarchs. The concept that insects and plants are inextricably bound together was not lost on Merian. In her work, she carefully noted which caterpillars were specialists - meaning they ate only one kind of plant. (You can relate to that concept if your kid only wants to eat Mac and cheese; they aren’t being picky - they’re being specialists.)
Before all this social media and high tech, drawings like Merian's were a holy grail for plant identification. One look at Merian’s work and Linneas immediately knew it was brilliant. Merian helped classify nearly 100 different species long after she was gone from the earth. To this day, entomologists acknowledge that the accuracy in her art is so good they can identify many of her butterflies and moths right down to the species level!
Between 1716 and 1717, during the last year of her life, Merian was visited multiple times by her friend, artist Georg Gsell - and his friend Peter the Great. Oh to be a fly on the wall for THAT meetup.
Gsell ended up marrying Merian’s youngest daughter, Dorothea Maria, and Peter the Great ended up with 256 Merian paintings. In fact, Peter the Great so loved these pieces that when Merian died shortly after his last visit, he immediately sent an agent to buy all of her remaining watercolors to bring them home to St. Petersburg.
Here’s a fun story for you. On the Maria Sibylla Merian Society website, the feature a video that shows writer Redmond O’Hanlon flipping through an original Merian folio (with gloveless hands!) Now O’Hanlon is a scholar and explorer himself. He is known for his journeys to some of the most remote jungles of the world. At one point in the video, he becomes speechless. Then, he just lets out this big sigh and says, “It’s so simple. Without the slightest doubt, she is - she was the greatest painter of plants and insects who ever lived... I mean just between you and me, she’s the greatest woman who ever lived. You can keep Catherine the Great...Maria Sybilla Merian is the real heroine of our civilized time."
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