November 15, 2017
A foundational work of naturalist art and research goes to auction
by Ryan Harrington
Move over Charles Darwin and Alexander Von Humboldt, the pioneering naturalist of the moment is Maria Sibyl Merian. Though perhaps it’s misleading to say “of the moment,” seeing as she was likely the first person ever to undertake a journey purely in the name of science: from the Netherlands to Suriname in 1699 in order to study, and depict, the region’s insects and plants.
But it is this week that a first edition of the book that resulted from that journey, Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium, goes to auction at Sotheby’s. As Alison Flood describes the book in the Guardian:
Showing exquisitely detailed images of the plants, insects, spiders, butterflies and amphibians of Suriname at the turn of the 18th century, Merian’s Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium caused a sensation when it was published in 1705, with George III acquiring her work for the royal collection. Sotheby’s said it was “one of the most important natural history books of the period”, with very few studies of insects having been done previously, and Merian one of the first naturalists to observe them directly, as well as one of the first female scientific explorers.
The book comes to Sotheby’s—who expect it to fetch between £80,000 and £120,000—from a private collector.
In a piece about Merian for the New York Times earlier this year, JoAnna Klein wrote of the naturalist’s lasting contributions:
At a time when natural history was a valuable tool for discovery, Merian discovered facts about plants and insects that were not previously known. Her observations helped dispel the popular belief that insects spontaneously emerged from mud. The knowledge she collected over decades didn’t just satisfy those curious about nature, but also provided valuable insights into medicine and science. She was the first to bring together insects and their habitats, including food they ate, into a single ecological composition.
Unfortunately, Merian wouldn’t live to see the fruits of her labor. Her trip was ended early after she contracted Malaria, and she died poor back in Amsterdam.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.