Maria Sibylla Merian
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.
But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!
In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.
It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.
But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!
Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.
And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.
There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!