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The Flowering Genius of Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science

an exhibition at the Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam, February 23–May 18, 2008, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, June 10–August 31, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition by Ella Reitsma, with Sandrine Ulenberg.
Rembrandt House Museum/ J. Paul Getty Museum/Waanders, 263 pp., $65.00; $44.95 (paper)
rowland_1-040909
Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
Maria Sibylla Merian: Gummi Guttae Tree with White Witch, Cocoon and Caterpillar of a Hawk Moth and Drops of Resin, circa 1705. These illustrations, from Merian’s Suriname Insect Book, appear in Ella Reitsma’s exhibition catalog, Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters.

The invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century revealed a miniature world no less vast and complicated than the depths of the starry heavens, themselves gloriously unveiled not long before by the telescope. Creatures previously invisible to human eyes proved to be crafted in detail as marvelous as that of any visible plant or beast, a fact that threw religion and science (in those days still known as natural philosophy) into an existential confusion, from which neither discipline has yet emerged entirely. It was one thing to discover new continents or new constellations, and quite another to discover, as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek—the Dutch inventor of the microscope—did with some horror, that whole kingdoms of “animalcules” were carrying on their lives within his own mouth.

One of the chief confusions presented by these tiny creatures was their place in the ranks of animal and vegetable. In 1705, when the erudite Swede Olof Rudbeck Junior published his biblical study The Selah Bird: Neither Bird nor Locust,1 his readers were still as likely as the ancient Hebrews to see bugs and birds as essentially similar creatures. The ability to fly was their most evident common quality, but Rudbeck’s contemporaries were also close to reaching a consensus that birds and insects shared another characteristic: they hatched from eggs rather than springing up spontaneously from substances like straw, sweat, and dung, or from the fertilizing power of sunbeams—the Florentine doctor Francesco Redi had put that controversy to rest in 1668, with the help of his powerful microscope, by finding fly eggs in a cow pat. To make matters still more confusing, the newborn beasts emerging from both bird and insect eggs often looked radically different from their parents.

By current standards, Francesco Redi’s minute examination of dung, like Van Leeuwenhoek’s examinations of scrapings from his teeth, come nearer to scientific method than Olof Rudbeck Junior’s minute examination of the Bible to shed light on the Selah bird (which he thought was actually a fish) while showing that the Swedish language was descended from Hebrew. Yet all those men, in their day, were regarded as highly competent natural philosophers. In many respects, another of their contemporaries, German-born Maria Sibylla Merian, enjoyed the same reputation for competence. Like Redi, Merian devoted much of her attention to the lower links of the Great Chain of Being; like Rudbeck, she financed her own research by ingenious entrepreneurship, eventually setting up her two daughters in the family business much as Olof Rudbeck Junior had been set up by his remarkable father Olof Senior, discoverer of the lymphatic system, anatomist, architect, fire chief, and purveyor of herring to the city of Uppsala (as well as the originator of Olof Junior’s peculiar ideas about the Swedes and the Bible).

Yet unlike Redi, who was as rooted in Florence as the Rudbecks were rooted in Uppsala, Maria Sibylla Merian spent her life in different parts of Germany, South America, and the Netherlands, and she carried out her investigations of nature without benefit of either optical instruments or a university degree (the first woman to earn one, Elena Cornaro Piscopia of Venice, took her laurea in mathematics from the University of Padua in 1678). Rather than coming to her interest in natural philosophy as a medical doctor (as did Redi and the Rubecks, father and son), she came to it as an artist, and communicated her results in images of plants, flowers, and insects, more than words. It is tempting now to compare Merian’s working method, with its emphasis on infinite patience, close attention to physical surroundings, and extreme intellectual independence, with that of pioneering women scientists like Jane Goodall or Barbara McClintock, but her story is more complicated than that. She was also peculiarly a child of her times and her surroundings, albeit a child with a large and emancipating talent.

Unlike most natural philosophers, decidedly an upper-class group, Maria Sibylla Merian—like the pharmacist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek—came from the world of middle-class business. This was a setting in which men, women, and children worked together, albeit with different duties, and where women might learn to maneuver in the marketplace as skillfully as men did. At the time of her birth in 1647, Maria Sibylla’s father, Matthäus Merian, was perhaps the most illustrious publisher in Frankfurt, a city already long renowned for its book fair and for its religious tolerance. This tolerance had first attracted the Calvinist publisher Theodor de Bry in the late sixteenth century when he fled Catholic persecution in Belgium, and soon de Bry’s print shop in Frankfurt had become famous for its illustrated books. The shop and its assets (printing machines, type, and extremely valuable engraved copper plates) passed eventually to de Bry’s son Johann Theodor, and it was the younger de Bry, in turn, who hired the Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian as an assistant. Merian, himself a Calvinist refugee, flourished, married his employer’s daughter Maria Magdalena, and, as their children came along, inserted them into the family enterprise. In 1623, Matthäus Merian, his wife, and their six children took charge of the shop.

Maria Sibylla was the child of the widowed Merian’s second wife, Johanna Sibylla Heim. The elderly father doted on his clever little daughter, predicting that she would bring continuing fame to the name of Merian; so, apparently, did her half-brothers Matthäus and Caspar, twenty years her senior. Although Mattäus Senior died when Maria Sibylla was only three, she would grow up immersed in the family’s world of painting, engraving, books, and salesmanship.

Johanna Sibylla Heim also remarried shortly after becoming a widow; her new husband, Jacob Marrel, was a German-born artist who had worked for years in Utrecht, specializing in decorative painting: flowers, still lifes, and views of cities. Although he came from a prominent Nuremberg clan, his social rank was somewhat below the Merians’. A widower with two apprentices and three children of his own, Marrel continued Maria Sibylla’s artistic training, by this time, apparently, against her mother’s wishes—but then Johanna Sibylla was one of the only members of this large extended family who lacked artistic skill. In 1658 the apprentice Johann Andreas Graff made a little drawing of the household at work, showing Maria Sibylla’s fourteen-year-old stepsister Sara bending intently over her embroidery frame, a painter’s easel propped behind her against a wall, two leaded windows casting light on her work.

Eleven-year-old Maria Sibylla, like Sara, was already putting her own hand to painting, engraving, and embroidery, both its design and its execution. Families like hers put every available member to work; for that reason, men and women tended to marry for the first time fairly late, in their mid-twenties, and, if bereaved, to remarry not long after losing a spouse. Above all, Maria Sibylla’s two extended families taught her that art was a business. The symbol of the Merian firm was a stork with a snake in its beak above the Latin motto Pietas Contenta Lucratur—“industrious piety pays.” The only surviving portrait of Maria Sibylla herself, engraved when she was a successful entrepreneur in her sixties, shows that Merian stork displayed prominently behind her. Industrious piety had paid off handsomely, helped along by a strong dose of Calvinist thrift.

Until recently, art historians and museum curators often relegated flower paintings, not to mention embroidery patterns, to the ranks of “minor arts,” despite strong evidence of the value these skills enjoyed in their own day. The idea of “minor arts” reflects the continuing commanding influence (thanks in great measure to Bernard Berenson) of the sixteenth-century artist and writer Giorgio Vasari, whose endlessly entertaining Lives of the Artists (with editions in 1550 and 1568) enshrined history painting as the pinnacle of the visual arts and Michelangelo as their undisputed master.

In such company, Maria Sibylla Merian’s renderings of plants and animals, with their crystalline accuracy, consigned her for a long time to the realm of scientific illustration rather than art. Fortunately, the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam and the Getty Museum in Brentwood took a different view this past year with the exhibition “Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science.” From this beguiling presentation, it is clear at once that the large dynasty of painters, publishers, and engravers that produced and sustained Merian was as consciously aware of its artistic status as was Caravaggio—whom her stepfather Jacob Marrel apparently took as his idol, and whose view of still life shows some profound similarities with that of Maria Sibylla herself. Ranged alongside the work of her mentors, from Theodor de Bry’s printed books to Jacob Marrel’s flower paintings, Maria Sibylla Merian’s own creations reveal the richness of her cultural surroundings, and her own individuality emerges beyond dispute—in vibrant color. There is no question that she was an artist. Her disquieting view of life in all its forms has carefully, cleverly shaped every one of the images that seem, so deceptively, to present intimate, dispassionate snapshots of reality.

Inevitably, perhaps, given her northern milieu, Maria Sibylla’s still-life style reflects the incomparable precision of Albrecht Dürer and Joris Hofenagel—the northern European tradition—rather than the fierce dynamism of Leonardo. On the other hand, her version of the pigment known as cochineal red, a concoction made from the carapaces of a certain kind of beetle, eventually achieved an electric intensity that has almost no equal; only the Italian architect Felice della Greca, who worked in Rome in the 1650s, ever mixed cochineal red with oranges and purples in such boldly fluorescent combinations, and he drew buildings and cityscapes rather than insects, birds, and flowers. Marrel himself had a distinctively different, and more subdued, sense of color; his chief gift to his stepdaughter may have been his fascination with the little creatures—the worms, birds, and insects—that give his flower paintings a shiver of intense but fleeting liveliness.

Marrel’s career as a flower painter coincided with the Dutch tulip craze and the precipitous drop in prices that occurred during February and March 1636, an event whose catastrophic effects, as Anne Goldgar has shown in her recent study Tulipmania,2 were not so catastrophic after all. In fact, after settling on a reasonable price structure in the spring of 1636, the tulip trade bustled its way into an enduring place in the world’s markets. Jacob Marrel, like every other painter working in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, knew his tulip breeds well, and portrayed them with a velvety softness, especially the prized white tulips shot with red, bunched together with fat, shocking pink roses and delicate purple irises, as evanescent as tulips, far more delicate, and almost as valuable.

Marrel and his clients also turned appreciative eyes on the other exotic plants that the Dutch East India Company (and its less successful West India counterpart) brought back along with their precious cargoes of spice: orange-blossomed crown imperials, peonies in shades ranging from violet to deep red. Dutch gardens displayed individual specimens of these plants in splendid isolation on pedestals of soil. The gardens of seventeenth-century Germany strove to keep pace with the trendsetters in the Netherlands, and there is reason to think, as Ella Reitsma shows in her catalog of the Merian exhibition, that the Merians and Jacob Marrel knew a few of the great gardens near Frankfurt.

  1. 1

    Olof Rudbeck Jr., Olavi Rudbeckii filii Ichthyologiae biblicae pars prima, de ave selav…non avem aliquam plumatam, nec locustam fuisse, sed potius quoddam piscis genus, manifestis demonstratur (Uppsala: Werner, 1705).

  2. 2

    Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

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