Maria Sibylla Merian

Changing science with artful looking

The natural science illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) broke new scientific ground with her close observations of insects and their habitats, combining art and science in her thoughtful and unusually accurate studies and illustrations. As a woman, she was unable to join a European painters’ guild and so worked in the approved watercolor and gouache (an opaque watercolor) rather than oil paint. 

insects on a tulip

The Smithsonian Libraries' collection holds several of her books of engravings. Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food), centers on the floral habitats and observed mysteries of insect transformation, showing the life cycles of butterflies and moths. In her career, she documented the life cycles of 186 insect species.

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tropical insects and plant

She spent several years in the Surinam rain forest studying and classifying New World tropical plants, insects and reptiles through direct observation, finding plants and animals unknown in Europe. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium shows that work. 

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The full text (Dutch) and illustrations of both De Europische Insecten (The European Insect) and Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium are available online through a partnership between the Smithsonian and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.