Exhibition | Maria Merian’s Butterflies
From the Royal Collection Trust:
Maria Merian’s Butterflies
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, 15 April — 9 October 2016
The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 17 March — 23 July 2017
Curated by Kate Heard
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.
—Maria Sibylla Merian
In 1699, the German artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian set sail for Suriname, in South America. There she would spend two years studying the animals and plants which she encountered, aiming to explore the life-cycle of insects (then only partially understood). Those studies led to the publication of the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), a luxury volume which brought the wonders of Suriname to Europe.
Maria Merian’s Butterflies tells Merian’s story through her works in the Royal Collection, acquired by George III. Many are luxury versions of the plates of the Metamorphosis, partially printed and partially hand painted onto vellum by the artist herself. Over three hundred years after they were made, these meticulous, brilliant works celebrate a woman whose art and whose story are enduringly popular.
Maria Merian’s Butterflies is shown at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace with Scottish Artists 1750–1900: From Caledonia to the Continent.
The catalogue is available in the U.S. and Canada from The University of Chicago Press:
Kate Heard, Maria Merian’s Butterflies (London: Royal Collection Trust, 2016), 192 pages, ISBN: 978-1909741317, £15.
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) trained as an artist under her stepfather in Nuremberg. Fascinated by butterflies and moths from an early age, she studied the insect life cycle through the animals she found in local fields and gardens, recording her discoveries in meticulous watercolors and prints. After she moved to Amsterdam in 1691, Merian became interested in the wildlife of Suriname, which she encountered in the collectors’ cabinets and botanical gardens in the city. Merian’s fascination with Suriname led her to undertake a trip to the country, then a Dutch colony, to study insects in their natural habitat. Between 1699 and 1701, she worked in Suriname, making expeditions around the country to collect specimens, rearing butterflies and moths and recording their eating habits and metamorphoses.
Merian’s work in Suriname was published on her return to Amsterdam as the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, or The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname. This groundbreaking book presented the insects that Merian had studied, with each insect life cycle shown on the correct host plant—an approach which has seen her described as ‘the first ecologist’. Merian’s illustrations are scientifically rigorous, but they are also beautiful, reflecting her training as an artist in the still-life tradition. Her approach to scientific illustration would be adopted by many of the natural historians who followed her.
Maria Merian’s Butterflies tells Merian’s story through her works in the Royal Collection. The core of these is a set of plates from the Metamorphosis, partially printed and partially drawn on vellum, which were acquired by George III as part of his extensive scientific library. Over three hundred years after they were made, these meticulous, brilliant works celebrate a woman whose art and whose story are enduringly popular.
Kate Heard is Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust. Her previous publications include High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson (2013) and she is Deputy Editor of the Journal of the History of Collections.