• Agents of Change

    • Merian did more than just establish the foundations for modern entomology; she also travelled to America in order to draw ‘in situ’ the insects’ changes.

    The cultural implications of representing a butterfly’s metamorphosis / 

    At the time, when women were uncommon participants of science, Maria Sybylla Merian (1647-1717) made one of the most important contributions to the field of entomology in the history of science. In the seventeenth century she set the foundations for modern science, and in general she did so with an incredible creativity. Her meticulous drawings of butterflies and moths have recently been rediscovered and celebrated in a recent exhibition in the Getty Museum, and compiled in a beautiful book entitled Maria Sibylla Merian: Insects of Surinam, by Taschen publishing house. Her drawings were particularly influential in terms of molding our understanding of the metamorphosis of butterflies and they carved the path for modern entomology.

    Merian was a brilliant entomologist and an adventurer who raised her own insects and later was marvelled by butterflies (which were unknown to world of science) and travelled to South America to study the different species. Hers was an unexpected adventure for the time. As a matter of fact, she was the first woman to ever write her adventures down. In Ada or Ardour, Vladimir Nabokov’s last novel, the author elegantly describes the voluptuous pleasure entailed by the study of insects, the same that perhaps Merian felt when she embarked to South America seeking rare treasures: ‘If I could write, I would describe, undoubtedly using too many words how much passion, how much decadence, how much incest —c’est le mot— art and science can find in an insect.’

    Classifying and evaluating the specimens took Merian six years, but when she eventually published her work, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, in 1705, the history of Entomology —and perhaps of women— changed forever. Merian illustrated the different stages of insects in sixty copper engravings, which she produced over six years. She drew butterflies, moths and caterpillars on the plants she found along the way. Until that moment, the vital cycles of butterflies and other insects had never been documented before. Her work is exquisite on an aesthetic level also, as if she used this medium to embellish the species before they were presented in society: their first presentation ever.

    Tagged: butterflies, insects, nature, art and nature, Maria Sibylla Merian