Saturday, November 8, 2008

Maria Sybilla Merian was born in Frankfurt in 1647. Her father, who died when she was 3, was a successful publisher of popular titles including a natural history encyclopaedia. But it was her stepfather, the flower painter Jacob Marrel, who set the course of her future career when he sent her out to gather insects for his floral still lifes, and encouraged her to include them in her own. A teenage interest in creepy-crawlies grew into a lifelong scientific passion.

For an over-inquisitive woman artist of the period, piety was good professional insurance. Germany held the European record for witch-hunts, and any woman with an unhealthy interest in plants, let alone insects, exposed herself to suspicion. People still believed in the spontaneous generation of maggots from fruit, worms from cheese and flies from old snow, and insects were regarded as “beasts of the Devil”. Dutch natural philosophers had begun to challenge these superstitions, but Merian wisely stayed out of the debate, preferring to “leave this to the gentleman scholars”. When her friend Joachim von Sandrart paid her the compliment of an entry in his 1675 survey of German artists, he tactfully added that she was an excellent housekeeper.

In fact, Merian was far from a conventional wife. Married at 16 to Johann Graff, a 28-year-old former apprentice of her stepfather, she gave him only two children in 20 years, at a time when healthy women averaged ten. In 1675, when her first daughter, Johanna, was seven, she published her first book of flower pictures; in 1679, a year after the birth of her second daughter Dorothea, she brought out a groundbreaking work on caterpillars. Research took precedence over household duties.

It's not surprising that her marriage failed; what is surprising is that she found a way out. Seeing no place for a separated woman in German society, she looked outside it. In 1685 she took her two daughters and eld-erly widowed mother to join her half-brother Caspar in a primitive Christian commune of Labadists in Waltha Castle, Friesland, in the Netherlands.

Having thus extricated herself from what she later described as a “poor” and “joyless” marriage, and having buried Caspar and her bel-oved mother at Waltha, there was nothing to keep her in the cloister. In 1690 she exchanged the Spartan commune for permissive Amsterdam, where a woman artist could earn an independent living, and where exotic gardens and cabinets of curiosities - the scientific fruits of empire - teemed with specimens fascinating to a naturalist. But to someone obsessed with field work, dead specimens were as frustrating as they were titillating. What caterpillars did these pinned butterflies come from? What did they feed on? She itched to know.

The Labadists had an outpost in Surinam, the sugar colony on the north coast of South America. In 1699 Merian sold her store of 225 paintings and, with 17-year-old Dorothea for support, set sail for the capital Paramaribo. Unshaken by tales of piracy and the murder of the previous governor by mutinous soldiers, she calmly packed her modest baggage allowance and threw in a family of caterpillars for good luck.

Merian had planned a long stay, but her plans were frustrated. She had underestimated the heat and impenetrability of the jungle, as well as the difficulty of catching butterflies in a forest canopy 150ft up. But in the Labadist settlement of La Providence, several days upriver through waters infested with piranhas and caimans, she managed to witness the metamorphosis of a green and black caterpillar into the White Witch, the moth with the widest wingspan in the New World. Her Amerindian helpers, steeped in forest lore, had more sympathy with her passions than the local planters who, she reported scathingly, “mocked me for seeking anything but sugar in the country”.

The contempt was mutual. No sugar cane appears among the brilliantly coloured pineapple fruits, cassava roots or banana flowers in this exhibition; nor does the ubiquitous mosquito, though two species of roach adorn the pineapple. The neglected insect took its revenge. Two years into her stay she succumbed to yellow fever; there was nothing for it but to pack her treasured specimens and go home. She arrived back safely with her precious load intact, though the blue lizards she had hatched en route sadly died in transit. Her store of butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and snakes - plus a pickled family of Surinam toads, whose extraordinary reproductive method she was the first to record - featured briefly in her book illustrations before being sold to raise funds for future publishing ventures. “That lady,” grumbled an envious collector, “never keeps anything for herself... having no other goal but to get money.”

Though republished four times after her death in 1717, Merian's book on the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam cost her more than it made her. As its novelty value faded, so did the reputation of its author, whose place as a female pioneer of ecology is only beginning to be recognised today. But thanks to exhibitions such as this one, and another focused on Merian herself at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in June - as well as a new biography, Chrysalis, by Kim Todd - interest is reviving in an amazing woman who, for the love of the humble insect, overcame all obstacles to her sex.