Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Beautifully Strange Insects of Maria Sibylla Merian

by Stephen J. Gertz

A copy of  Maria Sibylla Merian's Surinaamsche Insecten (The Insects of Surinam, Amsterdam 1730), "One of the best old scientific works, and one of the most magnificently illustrated books ever created" (Rucker), was offered at Ketterer Kunst Auktions in Hamburg, November 21, 2011. The fourth edition (third in Dutch), it sold for $51,840. On June 8, 2011, at Christie's, a copy of the first edition sold for $238,355 (incl. buyer's premium).

Originally written in Latin and published in Amsterdam in 1705 as Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, the city of Amsterdam had sponsored Merian to travel to Surinam along with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria, in 1699. Before departing, she wrote:

"In Holland, I noted with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruysch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Surinam" (From the Foreword to Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium).

"Merian's artistic and scientific interests outgrew Amsterdam's supply of exotic plants and animals. In 1699, after selling most of her belongings, she set sail for the Dutch colony of Suriname with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. Maria Sibylla was 52, Dorothea Maria 21.

"The jungles of South America were teeming with live specimens, which Merian studied for her most important publication, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (known as The Insects of Suriname). Merian's experiences in the city of Paramaribo are expressed in her accounts of vibrant butterflies, voracious caterpillars and ants, exotic fruits and vegetables, menacing reptiles, and treacherous explorations into the jungle. Her observations about the local climate, the use of plants and animals, and the Dutch colonists' treatment of slaves provide some of the earliest accounts of life in Suriname" (Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science).

Merian worked in Surinam (later the French, Dutch and British Guianas) for two years, traveling around the colony and sketching local animals and plants. In 1701 malaria forced her to return to  the Netherlands.

"Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), [was] an early German naturalist who exemplified the diy approach to observation, documentation, and dissemination of new knowledge in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Individuals at this time sought to document the worlds that were slipping away as quickly as they were being 'discovered,' and the talented Maria Sibylla Merian was one of these self-taught scholars.

"The daughter of one printer and eventual wife of another, Maria grew up surrounded by the stimulating world of scholarship, and all her life worked to satisfy her own intellectual curiosities concerning the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths. The methods that she used - keeping caterpillars in boxes, feeding and watching each change, and documenting her observations in word and images–resulted in studies that were unique in the early field of natural history. Her illustrations of both plants and insect life were reproduced in fine engravings in the books that she wrote and printed. And as an older lady, she even traveled to Surinam in search of undiscovered species that she could collect, study, and write about" (Jessica Pigza, The Talented and Brave Ms. Merian).

Merian, M[aria]. S[ibylla]. Over de voortteeling en wonderbaerlyke veranderingen der Surinaamsche insecten: waar in de Surinaamsche rupsen en wormen, met alle derzelver veranderingen, naar het leeven afgebeelt en beschreeven worden ... Amsterdam, J. F. Bernard 1730. Fourth edition, the third with Dutch text, of the great work on Surinam insects by Merian, edited by Bernard. Large folio. 51 pp with engraved title-vignette and seventy-two copperplate engravings by J. Mulder and J. P. Sluyter, all finely colored by a contemporary hand. Contemporary full calf with floral gilt spine, boards with gilt fillet, corner florets and floral vignette in center.

Nissen 1341. Rücker S. 46ff. Horn/Schenkling 14992.  Hunt 484.

Images courtesy of Ketterer Kunst, with our thanks.


  1. I'm fairly sure it was Amsterdam in 1705 for the first edition. There is an undated version, supposed to be 1705, which has a mostly Dutch title and text. Not sure if this is the actual first edition or not.

  2. Yes, I stand corrected: Amsterdam: Voor den auteur, als ook by G. Valck 1705.

  3. Do either of you know how to date these from the watermarks? Have three etchings from Metamorphosis that I know to be more than 100yrs old, but would love to know the specific


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