Updated on August 2, 2016
It was silkworms that first captured 13–year–old Maria Sibylla Merian’s attention. She would later graduate to a wider set of creatures, watching caterpillars, pupae, butterflies, and moths for days, weeks, and months. Paintbrush in hand, Merian recorded each stage of their life cycles, noting every change and movement. She depicted the silkworm moth from eggs, hatching larvae, molts, cocoons, all the way to adult moths. She distinguished between male and female, and showed a silkworm feeding on a mulberry leaf. Unlike many other girls her age, Merian was not disgusted by hairy crawling creatures or by tightly cocooned “date pits” as she called the chrysalis. She poked, squeezed, and prodded them to note in her books how they “roll up,” “twist and turn violently,” or “lie there as if dead,” according to an essay by the biologist Kay Etheridge, “Maria Sibylla Merian: The First Ecologist?”
Although Merian’s name isn’t widely known today, her life and influence have been charted in a handful of excellent works, including Etheridge’s essay, Kim Todd’s Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, and Mark Laird’s A Natural History of English Gardening. As they recount, Merian was born in 1647 in Frankfurt into a family of artists and printers—her father was the engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder and when he died, her mother married still–life painter Jacob Marrel, who encouraged his stepdaughter’s talent. As a young girl Maria Sibylla Merian painted flowers, before becoming obsessed with caterpillars and how they metamorphosed into moths and butterflies. At sixteen, Merian married Johann Andreas Graff, an artist who had learned his trade as her stepfather’s pupil. It wasn’t a happy marriage, but even as a mother of two daughters, she found time to rear her caterpillars and draw them. Their house was filled with boxes, jars, and plants, with her kitchen as the laboratory. In 1679, a year after the birth of her second daughter, Merian published Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung (The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars), the result of almost two decades of observations.