Maria Sibylla Merian, Pl. 36 Tobacco Plant with Butterfly, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, 1726, hand-colored engraving
This week only, enjoy a substantial discount on Pl. 36, Tobacco Plant with Butterfly, Nicotiana tabacum, a rare 18th-century 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 work influenced many naturalists, including Mark Catesby.
In Merian’s text entry for this plate, she chronicles finding the tobacco plant that she observed for this plate growing in the forest of Surinam. Due to the heat the plant wilted, so Merian had an Indian dig the “very white root of the Tobacco” and take it to the garden by her house. There it bloomed successfully, producing a single white blossom that resembled the flower of a Tuberose. It bloomed again six months later. On April 14, 1701, she discovered a white, brown and black caterpillar eating the leaves of the Tobacco plant, noting that it became a brown and white butterfly with orange-yellow hind wings on April 26. She also found a cocoon on the first of April from which the hovering fly emerged ten days later.
Though Merian’s intended purpose was to show the scientific aspects of the life cycle of insects supported by the tobacco plant, her exquisitely fluent and painterly style elevated the subject to one of rare and delicate beauty.
In The Art of Botanical Illustration, the author Wilfred Blunt writes, “Maria Sibylla Merian Merian..., though primarily an entomologist, was certainly one of the finest botanical artists of the period immediately following...1680. A cosmopolitan—she was born in Germany of a Swiss father and a Dutch mother—her art derived almost entirely from the great flower painters of seventeenth-century Holland.” (page 127)
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium is referred to in Nature into Art, by Handasyde Buchanan (1979), "as one of the finest of all flower books." (page 41)
Excellent period color. Sheet size for Merian prints is 20-3/8 x 13-3/8
$2,650 this week only (list price $4,200). Offer expires 4-3-17.
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.
References: Wilfred Blunt, The Art of Botanical Illustration an Illustrated History, 1994, page 127; Natalie Zemos Davis, Women on the Margins, 1995, pages 140–202.
For further information or to purchase, please call the gallery at 312-642-5300.