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Press release

Maria Merian's Butterflies

Release date: Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Maria Sibylla Merian, Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly, 1702-03

Maria Sibylla Merian, Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly, 1702-03 ©

Some of the finest images of the natural world ever produced will go on display in a fascinating exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse from March.  Opening in the 300th anniversary year of the death of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) in 2017, the exhibition tells the extraordinary story of the intrepid German artist and entomologist whose pioneering scientific investigations and artistic talents brought the wonders of South America to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. 

The exhibition brings together over 50 exquisite watercolours by Merian and her daughters, including many recording the flora and fauna of Suriname, published in 1705 in the artist's momentous study, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname).  Luxury versions of the Metamorphosis plates, which were partially printed and then hand-painted onto vellum, were acquired by George III for his library at Buckingham House (later Buckingham Palace) and are today part of the Royal Collection. 

In 1699, at the age of 52, Maria Merian, accompanied by her youngest daughter, travelled to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America to study insects in the wild.  Since her youth Merian had been fascinated by butterflies, moths and the phenomenon of metamorphosis, and became one of the first to engage with this field of study, publishing her first book on the subject in 1679. 

Undertaking the expedition without any official patronage, Merian had to sell the contents of her studio in Amsterdam to fund the two-month-long journey across the Atlantic.  Settling in the country's capital Paramaribo, she and her daughter worked in the hot and humid climate, making trips into the forests to collect specimens.  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 ground-breaking Metamorphosis publication and the luxury versions of the plates acquired by George III. 

Merian described in great detail the colours and patterns of the creatures she examined.  In Frangipani plant with Red Cracker Butterfly, she records the entire life-cycle of the insect, noting that its beauty could only be appreciated through a magnifying glass.  In Branch of an unidentified tree with the Menelaus Blue Morpho Butterfly, she comments that the insect's wings looked like roof tiles and used iridescent paint to replicate their sparkle.  

Merian fed the insects, studied their food sources, and recorded their host plants and habits.  She noted how the caterpillars of the Vine Sphinx Moth ate voraciously and contracted when threatened (Grape Vine with Vine Sphinx Moth and Satellite Sphinx Moth), while the caterpillars of the Giant Sphinx Moth moved around violently when disturbed (Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth). She describes how after touching a large white hairy caterpillar she discovered it was poisonous as her hand swelled painfully. 

Merian's studies were not limited to insects. She also made colourful drawings of the lizards, crocodiles and snakes of South America, including a Golden Tegu lizard – an agile and aggressive creature native to Suriname and one of the largest lizards in the world (Cassava with White Peacock Butterfly and young Golden Tegu).  The pineapple was among the many tropical plants that Merian encountered in Suriname.  South American in origin, the fruit was still a precious novelty in Europe, where the first had been cultivated from seed in a botanical garden near Amsterdam in 1687.  In the accompanying notes to Pineapple with cockroaches, Merian describes the flavour of the fruit and also notes what a nuisance the cockroaches were.  

Forced by illness to cut short her visit to Suriname, Merian returned to Amsterdam in 1701.  Along with her sketches and notes, she brought back numerous preserved specimens, including a crocodile, a large variety of snakes, and boxes of butterflies, beetles and other insects.  Merian continued to acquire exotic specimens, selling them to collectors across Europe to earn a living and recoup some of the money she had spent on her expedition.  

For four years Maria Merian 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 frequently quoted and discussed throughout the scientific world.  By her death in 1717, Merian was well regarded throughout Europe and subsequently had several species named in her honour.

Maria Merian's Butterfiles is at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, 17 March - 23 July 2017.