Maria Sibylla Merian: Why her art changed how we see nature (+video)
Maria Sibylla Merian was not just an extremely talented artist. She was also a scientific pioneer.
The Google homepage today depicts a range of natural forms – a lizard, a moth, and a slug among them – and a looping vine that spells out the Google name. The doodle is an homage to Maria Sibylla Merian, the German illustrator, who was born exactly 366 years ago today.
So why should we care about Merian all these centuries later? Well, as the website of the J. Paul Getty Museum puts it, Merian and her daughters (more on them later) were not just extremely talented artists. They were also pioneers who "raised the artistic standards of natural history illustration and helped transform the field of entomology."
Merian was raised in Frankfurt, in a relatively well-off household. Her father was a Swiss engraver named Matthäus Merian; after his death, in 1650, her mother remarried the still-life painter Jacob Marrel. She began painting insects from a young age, under the tutelage first of her father and then of her stepfather. Among her earliest works were images of moths, butterflies, and caterpillars.
"I collected all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphosis," she wrote at the age of 13. "I therefore withdrew from society and devoted myself to these investigations."