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Maria Sibylla Merian Google Doodle Shares Beauty of Nature Illustrations

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.

maria sibylla merian plant illustration
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) produced this illustration for her Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensiam. . . Amsterdam: G. Valck, 1705. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (164.00.03)

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).

maria sibylla merian plant illustration
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensiam. . . . Amsterdam: G. Valck, 1705. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (164.00.02)

 

maria sibylla merian illustration
Maria Sibylla Merian in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname) Amsterdam, 1705, figure 46 Hand-colored engraving (123)

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:

Butterflies and plants illustration by Dino Martins
Illustration by Dino Martins

 

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 HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

Comments

  1. Md.Ashraff Hossain
    vill-sayedkti. po-sarapul. ps-swarupnagar. Dist-(N) 24PGS. W B .INDIA.
    August 22, 2013, 12:54 pm

    She is a great artist and natural scientist.

  2. Howard D. Smith
    Florida
    June 18, 2013, 8:36 am

    I have two watercolors sigened by Mulder Sculp, they are of the metamorhpis collection but, they are missing the catapillar from the picture, they are renamed after the flower that the catapillar is on, the names of the watercolrs are “Flos Ruber Cum Eruca” and “Malus Aurania” Does anyone know of these?

  3. Martin Halley
    United Kingdom
    April 30, 2013, 4:38 pm

    I have dedicated the past 5 years to bringing exceptionally fine, early prints back from the grave. I only recently discovered Maria Merian and have been astounded by her work, especially as it was so early, pre-dating the likes of John Curtis (undoubtedly the finest ever illustrator of insects) by over 100 years.

    Maria’s work was pioneering and so her achievement is all the more remarkable as she had no earlier works to which she could refer for guidance. Earlier works, Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1535) for example, are charming but laughable by any scientific standard – yet this was pretty much what you got until Maria turned up.

    Her life and work are well worth celebrating in this, the 400th anniversary of her death.

  4. Amit Sharma
    http://shayri.info
    April 8, 2013, 12:03 pm

    was thrilled to see today’s google doodle – merian was a real inspiration, breaking through barriers as a woman and a scientist. i’ve seen an original copy of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, and it was stunning, she’s always been a personal favourite of mine. good to see her get some recognition.

  5. Januristi
    Yogyakarta, Indonesia
    April 3, 2013, 10:13 pm

    I’m glad to know that there is a woman from 17th century who did what men usually did and did what she loved instead of spending her time only for caring her house or children.

  6. Robin Porter
    North Carolina
    April 2, 2013, 11:36 pm

    So interesting,such details. I loved looking at them.She captured the beauty of nature.

  7. rob
    April 2, 2013, 6:50 pm

    Great work by woman of 17th century and enduring the life back in those days. Well illustrations was only the way back then to depict any study that was done. Hats off to Maria Sibylla Merian.

  8. Rhonda
    Seattle
    April 2, 2013, 6:01 pm

    Beautiful work. Just beautiful.

  9. Kirra
    Venice
    April 2, 2013, 5:14 pm

    I dont like they say she created google draw, when internet was not invented back then

  10. EDWARD DEVERGES
    ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
    April 2, 2013, 5:12 pm

    BEAUTIFUL ILLUSTRATIONS. I hope this was one of the first 4% of all books that Google saved for prosperity.

  11. Patricia,
    Grass Valley, CA
    April 2, 2013, 4:27 pm

    If Jesus is to be mentioned, then there are a lot of others who deserve acknowledgement. Leave religion out of it. Let’s just enjoy what is posted.

  12. Kirk
    Pennsylvania
    April 2, 2013, 4:19 pm

    I love looking at these old illustrations. It’s hard to believe they are over 300 years old! Her work is beautiful and timeless! Funny how these images endure through generations of paintings and photographs. Timeless treasures indeed!

  13. Gretchen
    Englewood, CO
    April 2, 2013, 4:18 pm

    I have always loved these type of illustrations from plants, wildlife to insects. Any thing that appreciates nature is worth looking at looking at. Enjoyed. Thanks.

  14. Jennifer
    New Zealand
    April 2, 2013, 4:17 pm

    Thank you for introducing us to this amazing woman – I admit, shamefacedly, that I’d never heard of her before. What a pioneer! Amazing that this was a 17th century woman and making such ground-breaking discoveries. Certainly worthy of celebrating!

  15. Jake Henry
    Earth
    April 2, 2013, 4:00 pm

    I loved this article! I’m so glad that people saw fit to commemorate her 350 years after! Thanks for doing this.
    -Jake

  16. michael
    April 2, 2013, 3:41 pm

    leon russell would have been a better choice
    he is the master of time and space

  17. Elizabeth
    April 2, 2013, 2:45 pm

    As someone who enjoys identifying birds and plants, I have found that I generally prefer guidebooks that use drawn illustrations instead of photographs. A photo only shows one example, and usually only highlights a few facets of the flora/fauna. But an illustration is an idealization, and can emphasize all the identifying factors, which is very hard to capture in a photo.

  18. Eleanor
    Fort Worth, TX
    April 2, 2013, 2:37 pm

    Not only does an excellent illustration allow us to see details we would probably otherwise miss, but the act of drawing itself involves a different sort of seeing, a kind of attention that I would guess few are capable of behind the camera.

  19. Victoria Maree
    Wisconsin
    April 2, 2013, 2:20 pm

    So thrilled to read this. I,m going to buy her book.. What a wonderful commemoration. She deserved it. Awesome woman and awesome example! Loved it!

  20. Rationalist
    April 2, 2013, 2:03 pm

    @TimB: Since when should a “Religious” Holiday be forced upon everyone? Only in your fairly tales….

    @Linda, Extremely accurate! Both facts are astonishing in their own right, let alone together!

    I’d have to believe the tranquility of what she did aided in her ability to live so long. Take note everyone, live peaceful and live longer and happier.

  21. brendasue watson
    United States
    April 2, 2013, 1:44 pm

    Thank You!

  22. Tim Benson
    Moline Illinois
    April 2, 2013, 1:30 pm

    Great, honor a 17th century illustrator, but couldn’t commerate Jesus on Easter!

  23. Linda
    San Clemente, CA
    April 2, 2013, 1:21 pm

    The fact that she was allowed to do this, and acknowledged for doing it, over 350 years ago, and the fact that she lived to be 70 were both miracles at that time.

  24. karen
    midwest USA
    April 2, 2013, 1:05 pm

    I still like the idea of someone taking the time to draw and illustrate with colored pencil & charcoal. Do wonder if digital takes away the sense of satisfaction of the physical drawing with pencils versus clicking a bunch of keys/buttons to make an image?? Perhaps this is a better question for the artists inside each of us?

    Each of us has a sense of nature based on personal views of our world, while the world’s value of beauty & nature has shifted through time. Wonder what the future will think of these drawings??

  25. Anna
    Salt Spring Island, BC
    April 2, 2013, 12:54 pm

    Merian’s science still stands. Her method of taxonomy served as a model for Linnaeus. If Darwin’s sketches had been as beautifully rendered as Merian’s (who also created the engravings) would he now be celebrated on his birthday as an Illustrator instead of a Scientist?

  26. Anna
    Salt Spring Island, BC
    April 2, 2013, 12:38 pm

    It was a surprise and joy to see that Maria Sibylla Merian was honoured on her birthday today. Yes her illustrations are beautiful, clear and educational, as they were intended to be. However the high quality of the illustrations seems to always distract from her equally important work in science and taxonomy. Merian was the first to discover and write about metamorphosis. Until her book (because not written in Latin was not considered real science) it was believed that insects spontaneously arose from the mud, melting snow or falling rain. Because her parents had divorced when she was young, and she had to help support both her mother and sister, she spent hours in the gardens of the wealthy burghers of Amsterdam painting the flowers in their gardens.

  27. Terri
    Hamilton, Ontario
    April 2, 2013, 12:26 pm

    I like to linger over botanical sketches longer than I would photographs. They have a different kind of beauty. More time and thought are put into sketches. Thought and effort are in every line. I appreciate things done slowly and thoughtfully.

  28. Teresa E
    Livonia, Michigan
    April 2, 2013, 12:25 pm

    Not only was she possessed by the drive to learn and understand (something our modern world seems to be losing), she also had the conviction to go against societal norms.

    The end result is enduring beauty and a better understanding of the natural world around us.

    Kudos Maria, kudos.

  29. Liz Bouchard
    New York
    April 2, 2013, 12:23 pm

    One can take a photograph in mere seconds, where it takes incredible time, patience and dedication to detail for the artists to reproduce such as these beautiful studies of nature. This form of recording nature is absolutely still relevant. I also very much agree with the poster who noted the advantages of all the stages of development being able to be recorded in one drawing.

  30. Sue Dewey
    Los Angeles
    April 2, 2013, 12:21 pm

    I completely agree with the comments above…and we’re lucky these beautiful illustrations have been preserved for all to appreciate.

  31. Quinton Plates
    Laughlin, NV
    April 2, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Without this artist, dinosaurs would be lost forever. I regret that we have not found a way to live forever, so that she may continue to preserve our diminishing environment, and her artwork could be displayed by people worldwide. The combination artist/scientist makes her the perfect person, one I feel we should name a saint. I am currently wiping my yard clean of any plants and animals in order to replace it with her exquisite artwork. I worship you, Matthaus Merian.

  32. Suzanne Ives
    Virginia
    April 2, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Ms. Merian’s work is not only relevant, it is reverential. to be able to portray the natural world in a way that is both beautiful and informative is an extraordinary gift. I could pore over these all day.

    How nice it is, too, to see such a talented woman artist/scientist getting her due!

  33. Michael Ward
    San Jose, CA USA
    April 2, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Digital reproduction is a tool to make them more widely available. Without the original illustration there is nothing to display; without digital distribution the images languish in rare book rooms. Together they sing duets.

  34. L Haynes
    United States
    April 2, 2013, 12:16 pm

    Wonderful!

  35. Anne Scott
    Vancouver
    April 2, 2013, 12:16 pm

    What beautiful and amazing illustration. What a wonderful idea to celebrate her. Thanks for another superbly done job!

  36. Ellen Hart
    Texas
    April 2, 2013, 12:13 pm

    I am reading her life story right now and I just bought the book from Taschen on her engravings. I was a Natural Science Illustrator years ago and she inspired me to start drawing again.

  37. Stacey
    Washington State
    April 2, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Amazingly beautiful work from an obviously immensely talented artist. As someone who can barely draw a stick figure, I envy such ability.

  38. Caren
    California
    April 2, 2013, 12:08 pm

    She not only was a fantastic artist but evidently was driven by her desire to capture the beauty of nature, even in far off dangerous lands.

  39. Karen
    New York
    April 2, 2013, 12:07 pm

    I teach art and what a great way for art to cross the curriculum.

  40. Esther Rogers
    Eugene, OR
    April 2, 2013, 11:58 am

    I am so impressed by the talented people who did these kinds of illustrations, Audubon comes to mind, also. I am more likely to study these drawings closely and see details I would pass over in a photograph.

  41. Charles Goodnight
    Vermont
    April 2, 2013, 11:55 am

    Anybody who has ever had to identify a bird or insect knows that a well drawn illustration is much better than a photograph. In drawings organisms can be positioned to properly reveal important details, details can be highlighted, and issues such as the angle of the light and complicated backgrounds need not get in the way. There will always be room for fine scientific illustrators.

  42. susan mcelhaney
    United States
    April 2, 2013, 11:54 am

    Pixels are one thing; the patience of the human eye and hand to capture nature’s exquisite beauty is relevant more than ever.

  43. Karen
    Texas
    April 2, 2013, 11:53 am

    Her skill and obvious love of her subject matter is as valuable as what she draws. She is an artist as well as a scientist…that puts her in a unique category…with the Luther Burbanks and Michelangelo. Digital has its place, and yet not for the sheer beauty of such as this.

  44. Maggie Fiala Chinappi
    Cambridge, Massachusets
    April 2, 2013, 11:52 am

    Agree with the above three comments. These illustrations teach so much about life celebrating life, appreciating nature, time, and looking for that of God everywhere. Thank you, Google, for enhancing my life in this way!

  45. Bill Roberts
    Earth
    April 2, 2013, 11:52 am

    Still relevant. You can’t always take a picture of a plant in different stages of it’s fruit development, but you can illustrate the different colors a pepper passes through. Plus they are art for arts sake.

  46. Mark Trunnell
    Springville, UT
    April 2, 2013, 11:51 am

    I wish I could have had her on my Pictionary team.

  47. Wendy
    Boston
    April 2, 2013, 11:47 am

    Relevant and breathtaking. It’s not just the illustrations, but the story of a brave talented woman who developed those gifts when culture dictated otherwise. What courage can we each access to teach and express beauty through any medium?

  48. Penny Holvey
    Ohio
    April 2, 2013, 11:46 am

    Captivating work and especially relevant in these times of digital enhancement.

  49. Reynardine
    April 2, 2013, 11:46 am

    These wonderful illustrations are still relevant, especially given the horrendous changes we have wrought on the natural world since then. Only these precise illustrations will allow us to set eyes on a dodo, a greater auk, or for that matter, see a passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet in living color.

  50. Laura
    Indiana
    April 2, 2013, 11:42 am

    Absolutely useful. As a landscape designer I am continually in search of the ways native plants connect to the insect world and relate to wildlife generally. The artistry of these hand-drawn illustrations provides a beautiful visual lesson in which these connections can be studied.

  51. Rosalina Muniz
    Puerto Rico
    April 2, 2013, 11:31 am

    Still relevant and beautiful.