Maria Sibylla Merian – 300

Portrait of Merian by Jacob Houbraken after Georg Gsell

It is 300 years since the renowned artist and naturalist Maria Sybilla Merian died on January 13, 1717 in Amsterdam. She was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1647 into a family of publishers and artists, and was educated and trained by the artist Jacob Marrel. She established her reputation as the foremost natural history illustrator with her Neues Blumenbuch, published in three parts from 1675. She lived with her daughters in Amsterdam from 1691, and in 1699 she travelled to the Dutch territory of Suriname in South America and spent two years studying and painting its flora and fauna. The work produced in Suriname was the basis for her masterwork published as Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium in 1705. This magnificent publication is a milestone in the history of natural history illustration. Through the meticulous depiction of insect metamorphosis Maria Sibylla Merian helped to establish the field of entomology.  The University Library is very lucky to hold a copy of the 1705 edition (MH.2.22) which came to the library as part of the Royal Library, the collection of Bishop John Moore given to the University Library in 1715 by George I.

Two sample plates from the 1705 edition (click on image to see larger version)

In 2016, a splendid facsimile of the 1705 edition held by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands, in The Hague was published. This facsimile edition is a collaboration between the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, and the Artis Library, Amsterdam, and includes several scholarly contributions placing the work in its context. It also includes an index identifying all the plants and insects depicted as well as a census of all the extant copies of the 1705 edition.  The University Library has recently acquired a copy of this facsimile ( which complements our copy of the 1705 edition.

Front and back covers of the facsimile edition (click on image to see larger version)

Click on image to see larger version

To mark the 300th anniversary of Merian’s death the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and Städel Galerie in Frankfurt am Main collaborated on the exhibition Maria Sibylla Merian und die Tradition des Blumenbildes, placing her work in the history of flower-painting. The exhibition was shown in Berlin from April to July and can be seen at the Städel from October 11. It traces the history of flower painting and drawing in all its manifold and delicate forms of approach and expression. On show are around 150 works from the collections of both museums, on both paper and vellum and dating from the 16th to the late 18th century. A beautiful catalogue accompanies the exhibition containing not only reproductions of the artworks shown but also a wealth of essays. The library has acquired a copy of this catalogue (S950.a.201.5378).

Our recent acquisitions add to the Library’s considerable holdings of biographies, critical studies and exhibition catalogues relating to Maria Sibylla Marian. No doubt many more publications dealing with her fascinating life and work will be forthcoming. The Library will endeavour to acquire these as comprehensively as possible.

Christian Staufenbiel

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