Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Maria Sibylla Merian - at the Getty Museum, Buckingham Palace and Kew Gardens

Maria Sibylla Merian was both a Naturalist and a Botanical Illustrator. She's rated as being one of the greatest ever artists of botanical and entomological subjects. Her profile has never been higher - and she currently features significantly in three major exhibitions in the USA and London.

Branch of banana tree (Musa paradisiaca) with caterpillar and moth (Aotumeris liberia) c1701-5
  • Yesterday, a new exhibition Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, (June 10—August 31, 2008) and is the first major exhibition of Merian's work in America. It arrives there following an exhibition in Holland.
  • At the same time she features prominently in two exhibitions in London
    • Amazing Rare Things at The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace; and
    • Treasures of Botanical Art at the newly opened Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717) was a pioneering woman of art, science, and business. She was an accomplished painter of flowers and insects and an entomologist from an early age. In her fifties, she traveled to Suriname, then a Dutch colony in South America, to study extraordinary insects first hand. Working with her two daughters, Merian made and produced one of the greatest illustrated natural history books of all time, The Insects of Suriname.

What I love about her work is that her flowers are always surrounded by creepy crawlies and butterflies of various sorts. Having spent a long time photographing flowers in May with my new camera one of the things which immediately struck me as I got to the grips with the new macro was just how many of my photos featured insects as well as flowers - although insects aren't often always seen in botanical art.

Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science

This exhibition introduces Maria Sibylla Merian to American audiences and focuses on natural history illustration. Co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum Het Rembrandthuis, the exhibition travels to Los Angeles after its presentation in Amsterdam

Pomegranate with blue morpho butterflies and Banded Sphinx Moth caterpillar
The exhibition explores various aspects of Merians career, including her hand-colored publications on flowers and insects, her successful business venture in Amsterdam as a specimen-supplier for the collectors and naturalists, and her extraordinary journey to Suriname and the scientific discoveries that resulted.

It presents stunning depictions of plant and insect life - examples of which feature in this post.

You can see more examples of her work on the exhibition website and a linked slideshow (where you can zoom and move around the images) plus there is an audio facility which explains more about individual images and how she makes her images work.

There is also a very wide variety of what like extremely interesting events associated with the exhibition which are all listed on the website. One of these is a Gallery Course on Beetles, Birds, and Butterflies: The Art and Science of Drawing from Nature. I wish I was in California!

The exhibition coincides with the publication on 15th June of a new book and fully-illustrated catalogue Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science by Ella Reitsma. I've not seen a copy but the website site states that the author carefully distinguishes Merian's work from that of her two daughters, who collaborated extensively with their mother. This beautifully illustrated book includes newly discovered drawings and fresh biographical details.

Common or spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and
South American false coral snake (Anilius scytale) c1705-10

Interestingly the images which the Getty Museum sent me for use in this post are also images which can be found in the Amazing Rare Things book - so if you can't get to California you might want to try a trip down The Mall in London (see below)

Merian in Royal Collection - Amazing Rare Things The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery
The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London - 14 March - 28 September 2008

Merian's interest in all things entomological as well as botanical makes her an excellent fit for this exhibition which focuses on the art of natural history.

The 95 watercolours by Merian in the Royal Collection were bought in 1755 by George III, when Prince of Wales. Most of Merian’s watercolours displayed are de luxe versions (painted on vellum) of the plates of the Metamorphosis, together with some works produced independently of that publication.

The book associated with the exhibition has a significant chapter given over to Merian and her life and work written by Susan Owens, Assistant Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle. I have a copy and the reproduction of work in the book is excellent.

Merian in Treasures of Botanical Art
The Shirley Sherwood Galler of Botanical Art at Kew

A delightful work by Merian "Polyanthus, cowslips and primroses" also features prominently in both the exhibition and the book Treasures of Botanical Art. which I reviewed in April and is a recommended read. This book marks the inaugural exhibition of the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Kew, which opened on 19th April 2008 (I was there!). It has some 200 paintings and drawings from both the Kew archive and the Shirley Sherwood Collection of contemporary botanical art which are in the exhibition. Both exhibition and book provide an overview of the development of botanical art since the 1600s and highlight some of the premier artists and some of the treasures of botanical art in both collections.

Maria Sibylla Merian - Resources for Botanical Art Lovers

I've prepared a resource site in anticipation of this exhibition while researching historical botanical art last month. Maria Sibylla Merian - Resources for Botanical Art Lovers will be of interest to all botanical artists and all those who enjoy botanical art and natural history. It includes links to biographies and books about her life and work. Plus online galleries and exhibitions which display her work. I hope to continue to be able to develop it as interest in this fascinating lady and her work continues to increase.

I'm also planning to expand the series 'Resources for Botanical Art Lovers' to other great botanical artists - starting with a site dedicated to the history of botanical art which is currently in preparation.

I have a book review of Dover's Merian's Antique Botanical Prints CD-ROM and Book (Pictorial Archives) which I'll post later today. I'm now off to the Press Preview of the BP Portrait Prize - which is the post for tomorrow!


  1. Thank you so much for this post. I saw some of Merian's work in Artist and Illustrators mag recently and was so inspired that I did a little research of my own. Didn't come up with half the info you have though. I will certainly spend some time looking through your resources on her.

  2. Thanks from me also for the online sources on this artist. I'm kicking myself for missing the exhibit in Holland... Looking forward to your future posts on botanical art (as well as the rest of your wealth of information)!


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