Recently, there is conversation in our office about the importance of hand drawing, more specifically, the ability to understand the environment around us through its practice. I have always been fascinated by scientific illustrations as they seem to portray the quest for understanding told through rendering. One illustrator and naturalist that uniquely displays this is the German born Maria Sibylla Merian who contributed significantly to the field of entomology.

More than 300 years ago, Maria was born in Frankfurt to a family that founded one of the largest publishing houses in Europe during the 17th century. Her connection to publishing and the training of her stepfather–who was a painter–probably contributed to the completion of her first book at just 28 “Neues Blumenbuch” in 1675.

At the time, women were not allowed to work with oil paints, so she instead worked in watercolors and gauche. Her most popular work was the book “Metamorphasibus”, which she completed in 1705,  illustrating insects in many stages of their life cycles. Most people at the time thought insects just sprung out of the ground, and Maria’s observations contributed to peoples understanding of metamorphosis.

Traveling with her daughter, she planned a scientific trip to the Dutch colony of Surinam. Unusual for the time, and even more so for a woman, her trip to the colonies resulted in her discovering many unknown animals, plants and their habitats. She was not interested in specimens, she wrote to a colleague explaining what she was interested in “the formation, propagation, and metamorphosis of creatures, how one emerges from the other, and the nature of their diet.”

Unlike a lot of scientific illustrations, I love the way the work emphasizes the relationships of the subjects to each other more than focusing on a lone subject. There is so much motion in the compositions as well as a good deal of storytelling and an amazing attention to detail. Looking at these works, I am reminded that life and nature are built of the same fascinating fibers–arranged and re-arranged in a never-ending variety of ways.

“Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line, that which is conquered, conquers at the same time.” – Maria Sibylla Merian