BEASTS OF THE DEVIL - Maria Sybilla Merian, Lizard from “Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium”, 1705.
Look at the date. 1705. Yes, thank you. Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was a fabulous naturalist and scientific illustrator. Everything she did was beautiful, but also odd. The above lizard, for example?
In her time, insects, her particular interest, were viewed as “beasts of the devil”
Merian was intrigued by metamorphosis, beginning with butterflies, and moving on to life stages of insects, with a lot of side interest in lizards, and various other creatures. Her early work was often used as patterns for embroidery - but clearly, she was interested in science as well as beauty.
- Branch of guava tree with leafcutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, c. 1701-5
Daughter to Matthaus Merian the Elder, who was a noted Swiss engraver and publisher, she was also stepdaughter to Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter. Clearly, both traditions moved through her work. When she was eleven, she engraved her first copperplate for illustration. She married her father’s apprentice in 1665, when she was 18, and had two daughters with him. (Though interestingly, she seems not to have ever changed her surname.)
- Surinam Caiman Fighting a South American False Coral Snake 1699-1703
In 1686, she moved to the Netherlands with her mother and daughters, and in 1690 divorced her husband.
In 1699, the now 52-year-old Merian - having resided in the home of the Governor of the Dutch colony of Suriname and observed his tropical specimens (I have no idea quite how this happened - was there romantic involvement? Maybe?) Merian sold most of her belongings in order to travel to Surinam with her youngest daughter Dorothea. The result was the extraordinary Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium.
She says - rather amusingly, given her clear passion for same:
“So I was goaded to undertake a huge and costly trip, traveling to Suriname in America, a hot and humid land where swarms of insects are there for the capture.”
She spent two years in Surinam, before returning to the Netherlands due to malaria.
After Merian’s death in 1717, her daughters continued to produce fabulous work in the entomological field. Six plants, nine butterflies, and two beetles bear her name.
And more biographical information here