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New exhibition explores remarkable life and work of 17th-century artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian

Release date: Friday, 15 April 2016

Maria Sibylla Merian, Coffee Senna with Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly

Maria Sibylla Merian, Coffee Senna with Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly ©

Dazzling watercolours that brought the wonders of South America to Europe in the early 18th century are on display in a new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Telling the extraordinary story of German artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian through the exceptional group of her works in the Royal Collection, Maria Merian’s Butterflies presents some of the finest images of the natural world ever made, including several which are on public display for the first time.

Of the 49 works included in the exhibition, many depict the flora and fauna of Suriname, taken from Merian's ground-breaking publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), published in 1705.  Partially printed and partially hand-painted on large sheets of vellum by the artist herself, these luxury versions of the Metamorphosis plates were collected by George III for his scientific library at Buckingham House and are today part of the Royal Collection.

Maria Sibylla Merian was remarkable both as an artist and as one of the leading naturalists of her day.  From a young age she had an interest in the life cycle of insects, an insatiable curiosity that would lead her to undertake an unusual and dangerous expedition to study specimens in the wild.  In 1699, aged 52, Merian travelled to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America.  Without any official patronage and selling the contents of her studio in Amsterdam to finance the journey, Merian, accompanied by her daughter Dorothea, undertook the arduous two-month journey across the Atlantic.

Merian and her daughter settled in the country's capital Paramaribo and for two years worked in the hot and humid climate, making trips into the rainforest to collect insects.  They nurtured the caterpillars they collected and recorded the transformation from chrysalis to butterfly in beautiful detailed drawings.  The watercolours with the artist's annotations would later form the basis of Merian's Metamorphosis publication.

Merian described in great detail the colours and patterns of the creatures she examined.  On display for the first time is Branch of an unidentified tree with the Menelaus Blue Morpho Butterfly.  In her accompanying notes Merian comments on the beauty of the butterfly and how its wings looked like roof tiles, using iridescent paint to replicate their sparkle.  Also on display for the first time is Coffee Senna with Split-Banded Owlet Butterfly, depicting the life cycle of the butterfly Opsiphanes cassina merianae, one of a number of species named in Merian's honour.

Forced by illness to cut short her visit to Suriname, Merian returned to Amsterdam in 1701.  For four years she worked to prepare her Surinamese research for publication, and Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was finally published in 1705.  The work was widely praised, and Merian's observations were quoted and discussed throughout the scientific world for many years after her death.

Exhibition curator Kate Heard of Royal Collection Trust said, 'Merian's determination to understand the world around her took her on an incredible adventure, and her artistic skill allowed her to express her findings through truly beautiful works of art. Her watercolours remain as fascinating to us today as they were when they were first painted.'

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