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)
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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.