Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla MerianHoly smokes. For reasons I can’t really explain, I wanted to see if the engraving of her from Amazing Rare Things was floating around anywhere. In that image, she is disconcerting. Very homely. (Right… of all the things to pursue.)

Google comes through!
Well duh. She’s in Wikipedia, with a much more flattering image.
And there is a page dedicated to her somewhere else.

Natural History Exhibit Chronological Tour.

(Holy smokes!) She’s there. (Posted in 2000. Along with Hooke, Linneaus, [Merian] Catesby Trembley Curtis Humboldt Bonaparte Audubon & Gould.)

Ah. “Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral: Natural History Books by Ten Authors.” Special Collections/ Sheridan Libraries at The Johns Hopkins University (March-July 2000)

Overview of the exhibit:


The ten authors, whose works are shown in this exhibit, were intensely curious about the natural world, and determined to communicate their observations. Their books are among the treasures of the natural history collections in the Sheridan Libraries and are on display at the George Peabody Library from March through July 20, 2000.

With intellectual curiosity and purpose in common, the ten naturalists were very different in their interests, backgrounds and styles of working. Robert Hooke (1655-1703 ) was a restless researcher who moved from one project to another. The striking illustrations in his Micrographia of magnified leaves, stones, and insects came from his study of the microscope. Abraham Trembley (1710-1784) became aware of hydra almost by accident, then concentrated on studying them as thoroughly as possible, planning every step in his groundbreaking work. Linneaus (1707-1778 ) had the same need for organization but applied it to creating a classification system of all three kingdoms of nature.

Illustration by Curtis.Trembley, Hooke and the horticulturist William Curtis (1746-1799) made their careers close to home, studying things which others did not notice, or considered ordinary, while Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), Mark Catesby (1679?-1749), and especially Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) traveled to study plants and animals and geology unknown in Europe. Humboldt’s six-year journey in Central and South America has been called the “scientific discovery of America.” (The plant – left – is by Curtis)

John Gould (1804-1881), the son of a gardener at Windsor Castle, was a taxidermist for the Zoological Society of London while teaching himself to be an ornithologist. Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857), Napoleon’s nephew, had a university education before becoming an outstanding zoologist. He depended on professional artists to illustrate his books, like all the naturalists except Merian, Catesby and Audubon (1785-1851), who were artists in their own right.

The illustrations are engravings, most colored by hand, in the earliest books and lithographs in those by Audubon and Gould. To protect them from the light levels in the Peabody Library, the pages of exhibited volumes were turned periodically through the duration of the original library exhibit. This on-line exhibit features all of the exhibited pages, as well as some detail images and images not shown in the original library exhibit.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), inventor and wide-ranging researcher, was curator of experiments of the Royal Society, professor of geometry at Gresham College, and Surveyor of the City of London after the Fire of 1666. He is best known for his accomplishments in physics and mechanics, but his Micrographia is important for its observations through a microscope of stones, plants including fungi, and insects, and its striking illustrations.

Carl von Linné, or Linnaeus, ( 1707-1778 ) classified the three kingdoms of nature as they were known in his time. He developed “binomial nomenclature,” or identification by genus and species, which is still in use, although much of his classification system has been modified by discoveries since his lifetime.
The Museum for his patron, the King, is a selected list of quadrupeds, reptiles and fish with their Linnean names, preceded by an essay in Latin and Swedish on the study of natural history, and illustrated with engravings.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) learned to paint from her stepfather, the still life artist Jacob Marrel. She was interested in flowers and insects from an early age, and published books of her paintings, showing insects in different stages of their development, with the plants that attracted them. When living in Amsterdam she saw a collection of South American natural history specimens, and was so much interested that she traveled to Surinam with one of her daughters to study the native flowers and insects on the spot. After two years she returned and published her major work Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensis, in 1705. In the book, the insects are not usually identified with as much detail as the plants.

Mark Catesby (1679-1749) made two lengthy journeys to America, from 1710-1719 and 1722 to 1726. The “Florida” of the title included what is now Georgia. He collected natural history specimens and made drawings and watercolors of plants, reptiles, animals and fish, then engraved his own pictures and published them for the first time in 1731. The work was successful and there was a second volume in 1743, followed by a second and third edition of both volumes. The third edition is shown here.

Abraham Trembley (1710-1784) tutor of Count Bentinck’s two sons at Sorgvliet near the Hague, noticed a hydra attached to an aquatic plant, and found that it was an animal capable of independent motion. Further observation and experiment proved that the hydra could be multiplied by dividing it in pieces. A thorough researcher, Trembley studied three species of hydra and published his findings in 1744. The illustrations shown are from a 1791 German translation, as well as the original 1744 edition.

William Curtis (1746-1799) was from a Quaker family much interested in medicine. He was apprenticed to an apothecary who left him his business, but he sold it to concentrate on his real interest, the study of natural history, and became well known as a horticulturist. Curtis had a subscription garden near London, where for a guinea a year the members had access to the plants and the library. He published the first edition of the Flora Londiniensis in parts from 1775-1798, but it was not a financial success. It was large, costly, and the plants illustrated, which grew wild around London, were considered by many to be not much better than weeds.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) began his career in the Prussian Department of Mines, but hoped to be a scientific explorer. He succeeded in gaining permission to visit the Spanish territories in Central and South America, then practically unknown in Europe. From 1799 he and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland traveled from Venezuela to Mexico, making discoveries in botany, zoology and geology and original observations of the geography, demographics and politics of the region. Humboldt published the results of the journey in Paris over a period of 29 years. Humboldt’s is the monkey.

Charles Lucien Bonapart (1803-1857), nephew of Napoleon, had an outstanding career as a zoologist. He was in the United State from 1822 to 1828, where he wrote four additional volumes for the ornithological work which Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) had left unfinished at his death. Bonaparte had the help of the artist Titian Peale, who found and painted birds for him in the Rocky Mountains and in Florida.

Image left: from American Ornithology, or, The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting in the United States, not given by Wilson … Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1825-33.

John Gould (1804-1881) was a largely self-taught ornithologist who began as a taxidermist for the Royal Zoological Society. His first book, on Himalayan birds, was based on skins shipped to London, but later in his career he traveled to see birds in their natural habitats. He was his own publisher from the first, and the 41 volumes of his works contain 3000 beautiful lithographs as well as exact scientific commentary, and were a financial success. Gould was not an artist, and employed professionals to rework his sketches. (Swallows below by Gould) From Birds of Asia. 1852-1883.


Handasyde Buchanan. Nature into Art: a Treasury of Great Natural History Books. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.

Natalie Zemon Davis. Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Dictionary of Scientific Biography . Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor-in-chief. New York: Scribner [1970-1990].

Sylvia G. Lenhoff. Hydra and the Birth of Experimental Biology, 1744: Abraham Trembley’s Memoires Concerning Polyps. Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood Press, 1986.

Gordon C. Sauer. John Gould, the Bird Man: a Chronology and Bibliography. [S.l.]: University Press of Kansas, 1982.

Shirley Streshinsky. Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness Athens, GA:: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Michael Sidney Tyler-Whittle. Curtis’s Flower Garden Displayed … Oxford; New york: Oxford University Press, 1981, c1979.

Carolyn Smith is Librarian of the George Peabody Library and Collection Development Librarian for Special Collections in the Sheridan Libraries.

National Museum of Women in the Arts – she’s there.


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