Maria Sibylla Merian

Etching of a woman holding the stem of a flower in her left land. Her white hair is short and curled to show an earring in her right ear. Her dress, with its lace collar and voluminous sleeves, looks like it is made from expensive fabrics. Her expresssion is open and frank.

William Home Lizars, Portrait of Madame Merian (from "The Naturalist's Library," volume 30) (detail), 1835; NMWA; Print collection assembled by Nancy Valentine, purchased with funds donated by Mr. Oliver R. Grace

1647 to 1717

In 1670, she and her husband moved to Nuremberg, where Merian published her first illustrated books. In preparation for a catalogue of European moths, butterflies, and other insects, Merian collected, raised, and observed living insects, rather than working from preserved specimens.

In 1685, Merian left Nuremberg and her husband, whom she was later divorced; she and her two daughters moved to the Dutch province of West Friesland. Eight years later, at the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. Merian had seen some of the dried specimens of animals and plants that were popular with European collectors, and she wanted to study them within their natural habitats. She spent the next two years studying and drawing the indigenous flora and fauna.

Forced home by malaria, Merian published her most significant book in 1705. The lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam established her international reputation. The plates in NMWA’s collection come from a second, posthumously published edition, Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam.

Artist Details

  • Name

    Maria Sibylla Merian
  • Birth

    Frankfurt, Germany, 1647
  • Death

    Amsterdam, 1717
  • Phonetic Spelling

    mah-REE-ah zih-BOO-lah MAY-ree-ahn
  • NMWA Exhibitions

    • Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age, 2019
    • Super Natural, 2015
    • Trove: The Collection in Depth, 2011
    • Prints by Maria Sibylla Merian, 2005–06
    • Artists on the Road: Travel as Source of Inspiration, 1997–98
    • Four Centuries of Women’s Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1990–91

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