One of my favorite vendors at D.C.’s Eastern Market sells illustrations of plants and animals. The intricate colored drawings harken back to a golden age of naturalism, when intrepid explorers headed out with little more than a notebook to chronicle the incredible biodiversity of our world. Of course, there are still many species yet to be described, but these days biologists typically use more high-tech tools like digital cameras and satellite phones.
One pioneering woman who produced many beautiful illustrations of nature is being honored today with a Google Doodle: Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Merian was a naturalist and illustrator who made many enduring works, at a time when few women were encouraged to participate in science.
In her book Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), Merian wrote that she had been drawn to studying insects as a small child in her native Frankfurt, Germany, especially the industrious silkworm.
The daughter of an engraver and publisher named Matthaus Merian, and stepdaughter to botanical painter Jacob Marell, Merian published her first book of illustrations by age 28. She was schooled in the art of painting and possessed a voracious hunger for knowledge of the natural world.
In 1699, Merian and her daughter traveled to Dutch-controlled Suriname in South America, where they spent two years studying the exotic flora and fauna.
Today marks the 366th anniversary of Merian’s birth (Google is known for marking unusual iterations of milestones).
National Geographic, too, has a long history of publishing detailed nature illustrations, from field guides to maps, and from magazine features to online interactives. It’s fitting to remember that such artistry and science builds on a long tradition of work by explorers to document, and at least intellectually preserve, part of the wondrous natural world, from Audubon’s birds to Charles Darwin’s sketches.
What do you think of such illustrations in todays’ age of digital reproduction? Are they relics of the past or still relevant and useful ways to picture the world?
Update: We noticed that Merian’s drawings may have a successor in the form of recent sketching by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Dino Martins, who also studies insects. Check out this recent piece by Martins from Nairobi National Park:
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.