A consideration of the similarities between Merian’s prints and the visual syntax of Dutch-era still-life painting
Living in the Netherlands at a time when Amsterdam was an epicenter of the arts and mercantile trade, Maria Sibylla Merian was exposed to a vast number of creative influences, exotic imported goods, and foreign specimens brought back from overseas. As a result, Merian’s artwork reflects the melding of these influences in her depictions of the flora and fauna of Suriname. Moreover, her artistic approach to rendering insects, plants, reptiles, and amphibians uniquely emulates the visual vocabulary of 17th-century Dutch still-life painting. This article explores the various ways in which Merian’s hand-colored engravings from Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname adopt aspects of the Dutch still-life painting tradition.
Economy, Science, and Art in Amsterdam
To begin with, a brief overview of the socioeconomic forces at play in the Netherlands during this time is necessary to ground our understanding of Merian’s prints. With the development of the Dutch East India Trading Company, vast quantities of exotic goods were imported to Europe through port cities including Amsterdam where their global headquarters were located. Tea, textiles, porcelain, lacquerware, and “New World” naturalia were among the hordes of foreign imports that cycled through Amsterdam and shaped the local palate. Moreover, the Company’s prosperity brought affluence to Amsterdam that allowed for the financing of artistic and scientific endeavors.
From a scientific standpoint, the influx of unnamed flora and fauna fueled the development of natural history as a structured discipline. Predicated on empirical observation, scientific study at this time relied heavily on representations of natural phenomena rather than the actual organism. These representations were most often rendered through print media including etchings, engravings, and woodblock prints. As a result, the multiplicity of the print format allowed for the swift execution and dissemination of new findings that were then accessible to naturalists, collectors, and laymen alike. In fact, the prints of a particular natural specimen were often referenced as though possessing the veracity of the living thing. Thus, a robust print culture flourished in service of both art and science.
Simultaneously, Dutch still-life painting matured in response to the influx of foreign stimuli, and many canvases such as this painting by Pieter de Ring capture a cacophony of foreign and domestic goods. Dramatic displays of exotic fruits bursting with ripeness were pictured alongside exquisite floral displays and sensuous seafood platters. Insects including butterflies, beetles, and snails were often included in the still-life paintings to give them a sense of life and to indicate the passage of time. The objects depicted in still-life paintings were often imbued with symbolism and served to remind the viewer of “edifying concept(s) such as worldly vanity or temperance…the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures,” and “sober warning(s) against the desire for material things.” (Walter Liedtke, “Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays, 2003).
Still life motifs in Merian’s entomological illustrations
It is against this cultural milieu and artistic tradition that Merian produced her most notable folio, the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. Comprising 60 hand-colored engravings (12 additional plates added in posthumous editions), the folio was the first European attempt to visually document and explore the metamorphosis of insects. Possessing a life-long interest in entomology, Merian approached her artwork with the acute discernment of a seasoned naturalist. However, her prints display a number of traits that mirror the artistic trends of Dutch still-life painting rather than the taxonomic approach to representation that was popular in scientific illustration. The visual similarities between Merian’s prints and Dutch still lifes include the following: the intonation of the gradual passage of time that leads to the inevitable decay of living organisms, an aestheticized and sensorial experience of nature, and an emphasis on luxury imports.
For example, Pl. 19, Guava depicts the life cycle of the Flannel Moth unfolding on a sour guava branch while a Melantho Tigerwing Butterfly idly circles by. The print dramatically visualizes the metamorphosis of the Flannel Moth from caterpillar to mature adult thus employing the narrative undertone and temporal consideration common in vanitas paintings. The steady passage of time is likewise visualized through the maturation of the guava from white blossom, to small green fruit, and finally to ripe and delectable guava. These features, along with the munched leaves of the guava, visualize the transitory nature of life and the inevitable degeneration of all organisms.
These characteristics are apparent in still-life paintings such as Festoon of Fruit and Flowers by 17th-century artist Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1660 – 1670). Here an assemblage of edible fruits and flowers cascade down from a bronze ring where the bouquet is fastened by a languidly tied ribbon. The dramatic lighting and dark contrast of the background heighten the sharp details and solid forms of the festoon. A number of insects are present, flittering about, nibbling here and there, and lending a sense of vivacity to the painting. The composition is a symphony of the senses and conjures the familiar smell, taste, and touch of the depicted vegetation.
Much like Merian’s Guava, the Festoon of Fruit and Flowers contains a subliminal narrative indicating the passage of time visualized through the subtle decay of the foliage and the insect’s gradual consumption of the fruit. Likewise, the ripe pomegranate bursting from its peel and the cleanly sliced fig demonstrate similitude between the visual repertoire of Merian and the Dutch still-life painter. While Merian likely does not espouse the symbolic implications of the fruits and insects that would have underscored the Festoon, her artistic technique is nonetheless influenced by the contemporaneous trends in Dutch still-life painting.
Likewise, the presence of a still-life vernacular in Merian’s artwork persists in Pl. 2, Pineapple, Pl. 26, Cocoa Plant, and Pl. 14, Soursop with Owlet Moth. Featuring the insects and tropical produce of Suriname, the engravings read as a chronicle of the perceived exotic abundance and foreign intrigue of the New World. The pineapple, which was at the time a much sought-after fruit and only available to the affluent classes, is pictured alongside cochineal bugs which were harvested to produce what was the most expensive dye from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Likewise, the cocoa plant, while being used for centuries by Mesoamericans, was still novel to the European palate. Lastly, fruits such as the soursop necessitated a tropical environment and did not always fare well on long overseas voyages. They were, therefore, a rarity on the European market. Much like the Dutch still-life painters, Merian lends her focus to the highly prized commodities of the New World.
While Merian’s primary concern was the metamorphosis of Surinamese insects, her plates display multiple layers of influence and a perspective that was cultivated by her life in 17th-century Holland. Her tendency to capture the most exotic fruits and vegetation and to employ them as a stage upon which the insect’s transformation takes place parallels the Dutch still-life tradition of depicting tangentially-related assemblages of foreign imports in a chorus of sensuous colors and textures. While many of Merian’s plant and animal pairings have ecological credibility, several do not. As Claudia Swan notes in her exhibition essay “Illustrated Natural History,” Merian’s prints often display an “entirely implausible gathering of winged creatures” rather than a grouping that one would have encountered in nature (190).
In conclusion, Merian’s artistic approach to rendering natural phenomena draws on a multitude of influences including the visual syntax of still-life painting. Leaves munched by bugs indicate the passage of time, an abundance of exotic fruits connotes the opportunity of the New World, and the cohabitation of unrelated naturalia in an aesthetically pleasing composition indicates Merian’s awareness of the visual trends in still-life painting at the time. In addition to significantly furthering the budding discipline of entomology through her observations on insect metamorphosis, Merian combines the visual language of fine art with the analytic vision of natural history illustration in her prints.
This article is Part 1 of a 2-part series on the influence of fine art and science in Merian’s work. Part 2 explores The Influence of Scientific Modalities of Perception and Representation in Merian’s Artwork. To read this article, please visit the links below.