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In 1691 Merian and her daughters moved to Amsterdam, one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, a centre of scientific research, artistic production and of trade with Dutch colonies around the world. Amsterdam was home to a number of collectors of natural curiosities, who purchased exotic insects and birds from the ships that docked in the city’s port. It also had a splendid research garden, where tropical plants were cultivated. Merian made important contacts among the scientific community here, among them Caspar Commelin, the curator of the botanical garden; Frederik Ruysch, a physician and collector whose daughter Rachel was a still-life painter; and Levinus Vincent, who had an important cabinet of natural curiosities.

Merian’s exposure to exotic insects in Amsterdam collections both encouraged and frustrated her. She was fascinated by the examples she saw, but was unable to study life cycles from dead specimens. ‘All this stimulated me to take a long and costly journey’, she wrote, ‘in order to pursue my investigations further’. In 1699, therefore, she sold the contents of her studio, and with her 21-year-old daughter Dorothea, boarded a ship for Suriname.