I have always loved detailed, exotic flower designs such as William Morris's 'Pomegranate' wallpaper and Osborne & Little curtains. But until I visited the Queen's Gallery recently, I had no idea that they were all inspired by an extraordinary 17th century woman.Matthäus Merian, a successful printmaker and when he died only three years later, her mother married the still-life artist Jacob Marrel, who taught Merian to paint accurate and detailed flowers.
Pineapple with Cockroaches which Merian described as
‘the most infamous of all insects in America’.
From childhood, she was also fascinated by the life-cycles and habitats of insects. Merian's full colour compositions were not only elegant but also carefully observed and naturalistic. The caterpillars, chrysalis and adult butterflies are shown on the actual plants on which they fed. Most naturalists then still believed that caterpillars and butterflies were distinct species and Merian was one of the first to understand the metamorphosis of insects. Her pioneering work on the relationship between animals, plants and their environment, and that specific food was vital to the survival of each species, made her the first 'ecologist'.
After separating from her husband, Merian moved with her two daughters to a Labadist commune in Waltha castle in Holland. Choosing to live in simple austerity, she continued her studies including into the metamorphosis of frogs. When the commune broke up, she moved to Amsterdam, then a thriving centre of art and nature, and saw her first pineapple.
Ripe Pineapple (Ananas comosus) with Dido Longwing Butterfly (Philaethria dido), 1702-3. Merian noted that the wine made from pineapples had 'an unsurpassable flavour.'
Maria Merian lived in the capital, Paramaribo, with Dorothea and explored the surrounding forests for plants and animals to draw, and caterpillars to rear and observe. For two years she painted scientifically accurate illustrations, until her ill-health forced them to return home.
Banana (Musa paradisiaca) and bullseye moth (Automeris liberia). Merian commented that a banana ‘has a pleasant flavour like apples in Holland; it is good both cooked and raw.’
|Back in in Amsterdam, in 1705 Merian published a luxury book of beautiful, hand-coloured etchings called 'The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname'. She also produced partially printed and hand-drawn coloured plates printed on vellum to sell to her richer patrons. Merian, probably assisted by her daughters, inked sections of each etched plate and ran them through the press. While the ink was still wet, she transferred a reverse image onto a sheet of vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then coloured by hand with watercolour mixed with gum arabic. Merian varied the arrangement of insects and plants so that each plate is a unique composition. She became one of the most celebrated natural scientists of her age and regarded throughout Europe as both an entomologist and an artist. She was also an astute businesswoman. ‘I had the plates engraved by the most renowned masters, and used the best paper in order to please both the connoisseurs of art and the amateur naturalists interested in insects and plants,’ she wrote.
Guava tree (Psidium guineense) with Army Ants (Eciton sp.), Pink-Toed Tarantulas (Avicularia avicularia), Hunstman Spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) and a Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird (Chrysolampis mosquitus). Merian showed a tarantula carrying off a hummingbird which may have led to the erroneous belief that tarantulas eat birds.
Merian died in Amsterdam in 1717. Three hundred years later her meticulous, brilliant works continues to inspire and excite artists and designers. Several plants, butterflies and beetles have been named after her, such as the Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly (Osiphanes cassina merianae).
In 1810 George III bought the set of plates from Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which are now in the Royal Collection in London.
All illustrations copyright Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016.