Maria Sibylla Merian, Pl. 22 Red Amaryllis

Hand-colored engraving, 1726

Laura Oppenheimer

Maria Sibylla Merian, Pl. 22 Red Amaryllis
hand-colored engraving, 1726

Plate 22 Red Amaryllis is a rare hand-colored engraving from the 1726 edition of Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. The first to depict the metamorphosis of insects on their host plants, Merian’s studies showing animals in their habitat in the cycle of life influenced many artist-naturalists, including Mark Catesby.

Melding scientific observation and art, in her engraving, Merian paints an exquisite Red Amaryllis in flower, a host plant that she found growing in the wild while living in Surinam. The plate encompasses the entire cycle of life of the metamorphosis of a butterfly over time on the Red Amaryllis host plant, depicting the egg, caterpillar, pupa, and butterfly. Merian figures in rich detail a blue and yellow striped caterpillar with a red head and feet and delicate black hairs as it crawls along the leaf of the Red Amaryllis. She notes that on June fourth, an oval cocoon formed, from which a brown pupa emerged. By June 30, she observed a beautiful ocher yellow, orange and black butterfly, that she depicts in the composition flying near the host plant. Also figured is a “little red caterpillar with green and white stripes” that Merian found in the grass alongside the Red Amaryllis and a yellow and black fly.     

Excellent period color. Sheet size for Merian prints is 20-3/8 x 13-3/8 inches.

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Born in Frankfurt am Main, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) was the daughter of Matthaus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), a German-Swiss painter, engraver and publisher. Her father died when she was three and her mother remarried Jacob Marrel (1614–81), who had recently arrived in Frankfurt to open an art studio as a still-life painter. From the time she was eleven, Marrel schooled Merian in the tradition of northern European still life painting, working directly from life. As her interests evolved toward the study of insects, she employed these painterly skills to serve scientific objectives as well as aesthetic ones.

In 1665, she married a student of Marrel’s, the artist Johann Andreas Graff (1637–1701). During her marriage, two daughters were born and  she continued to work as an artist, producing entomological studies and flower drawings that were in great demand as embroidery models. She began publishing her work, including a three-part flower book between 1675 and 1680. After her marriage dissolved, she moved in 1681 with her daughters and mother to a Labadist colony for a period before settling in Amsterdam in 1690. There she was introduced to a wider circle of people involved in natural history pursuits.

In June of 1699, at the age of 52, the artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian departed from Amsterdam, along with her daughter Dorothea Maria, on an arduous journey to the Dutch colony of Surinam on the northeastern coast of South America.  There, she spent two years observing the indigenous plants and insects, studying and painting them from life. This endeavor resulted in one of the most significant natural history folios of the 18th century, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, the culmination of her career as an artist and naturalist.

Merian documented and studied the flora and fauna of Surinam, painting her exquisite studies on vellum with exactitude. These elegantly composed paintings portray the metamorphosis of one or more species of insect supported by a central plant food source and depicted its various stages of life: caterpillar or larva, pupa, moth, butterfly, or fly. In Metamorphosis, Merian merged the aesthetics and techniques of flower painting with the scientific study of insects, establishing her lasting reputation as an artist and scientist.

In 1705, two small editions were published, with 60 engraved plates, in Latin and Dutch. On the day Merian died, Tsar Peter the Great concluded a transaction to purchase a two-volume collection of unbound paintings, as well as her journal of studies, Studienbuch. In all, three editions of Merian’s Metamorphosis were published.  The later two include 12 additional plates.  Examples of Metamorphosis in good condition with original color are extremely rare.

For further information or to purchase, please call the gallery at 312-642-5300.

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