Down to a Science: #5WomenArtists Spark #5WomenScientists

For Women’s History Month, NMWA posed the question, “Can you name five women artists?” While social media users shared stories of women artists with #5WomenArtists, other science museums and cultural institutions expanded the challenge by posting content about #5WomenScientists.

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from “Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam,” second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Art and science are two fields which seamlessly overlap. Both encourage close observation, experimentation, and innovation. Women are often overlooked and underrepresented in both fields. NMWA features a collection of works by women artist-scientists.

Because of their purported keen powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. After studying dried specimens of plants and animals that were popular with European collectors, botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) decided to study them in their natural habitats. At the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip, without a male chaperone, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She spent two years studying indigenous flora and fauna. Her book, the lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam, was published in 1705 and established Merian’s international reputation.

As tools for observation became more advanced, photography emerged as a new medium to explore, record, and interpret nature. Molecular biologist-turned-photographer Amy Lamb (b. 1944) continues the tradition of women artist-scientists by producing large-scale “portraits” of plants. For Lamb, observation is a vital part of her creative process. She grows most of the plants that she photographs, which allows her to become intimately familiar with their life cycles. Studying plant maturation repeatedly helps her anticipate when to have the camera ready.

Amy Lamb, “Magnolia,” 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Magnolia, 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

The influence of science is a common thread in NMWA’s collection. Floral still-life paintings by Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), cliché-verre prints by Maggie Foskett (1919–2014), and etchings by Monika E. de Vries Gohlke (b. 1940) engage with science and nature. Angela Strassheim (b. 1969), trained in forensic photography, lends a scientific eye to her oeuvre, while Michal Rovner (b. 1957) simulates the feeling of a laboratory through a video work involving petri dishes.

Continue exploring the stories of women artist-scientists. Browse a selection of #5WomenScientists posts from institutions ranging from the Field Museum, to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Franklin Institute, and the Science Museum, London.

—Madeline Barnes is the winter/spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Merian’s Daughters: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, Amy Lamb, and Janaina Tschäpe

Join NMWA on September 3, when contemporary artists engage in conversation about their “artistic foremother” Maria Sibylla Merian. During Merian’s Daughters, Super Natural artists Amy Lamb, Janaina Tschäpe, and Monika E. de Vries Gohlke will discuss their disparate ways of dealing with nature in their work. The three artists credit groundbreaking 17th-century artist and scientist Merian, whose work is also on view in Super Natural, as a major influence on their performances, photography, videos, and prints.

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Purple Datura, 2015; Digital pigment print of photograph, 34 x 34 in.; Promised gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore; © 2015 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Maria Sibylla Merian revolutionized botany and zoology through her studies of flora and fauna. At age 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America, without a male companion. She spent two years studying and drawing the indigenous animals and plants. Her lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam established her international reputation.

Through studying insects, Merian paved the way for centuries of artist-scientists, including Amy Lamb, who cites Merian as a major influence on her career. A cellular biologist-turned-artist, Lamb admires women like Merian for their ability to cross over to the art world.

Lamb’s photographs emphasize the formal properties of her subjects—the color of a leaf, the ruffled edges of a petal, or the reflective qualities of a dew drop. Her photographs recall the painstaking detail found in Merian’s scientific drawings. While Merian emphasized biological detail to foster better scientific understanding, Lamb’s large-scale images elevate the minutiae of her flowers to monumental status.

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Janaina Tschäpe, Moais from “100 Little Deaths,” 2002; Chromogenic color print, 31 x 47 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Talented and independent, Merian set an example for women like Janaina Tschäpe. Merian ventured beyond 17th-century societal norms by traveling and studying in a foreign country with only her daughter as a companion. Tschäpe also traveled to remote locales for the benefit of her art. She created her “100 Little Deaths” series by photographing her body in natural environments around the world—from Capri to Angkor Wat.

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left: Monika E. de Vries Gohlke, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, 2012; Etching and aquatint, hand colored, on paper, 11 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift of the artist; Right: Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 69 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, 2nd Ed., 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 14 1/4 x 20 1/2 in.; NNMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Merian’s influence is evident in Monika E. de Vries Gohlke’s oeuvre. One of Gohlke’s prints, “Caiman” After Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters, is similar to Merian’s composition showing a caiman struggling with a snake, which is on view next to Gohlke’s drawing. The French phrase “L’homage”—visible on the ground below the fighting figures—underscores the relevance of Merian’s preceding work. Spiders and butterflies along the top of the drawing allude to Merian’s renowned artistic and scientific work on insects. Merian’s illustrations cover an adjacent wall within the same gallery as Gohlke’s Caiman.

Hear from the artists in person at NMWA about their work and Merian’s persistent influence—register today through the online calendar.

—Christy Slobogin was the summer publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.