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The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science

Review

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science

Maria Merian was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1647. Her father was an accomplished publisher and her older half-brothers and sisters worked in the family business. Before her father died, when she was just three years old, Maria spent time among the ink, parchment and paper of his shop. A year after his death, her mother remarried. Merian’s stepfather was Jacob Marrel, a successful still life painter and he filled her life with ink and canvas, not to mention the fruits, flowers and insects that inhabited his paintings. It is this combination of information, art and insects that propelled Maria Merian into a life that few people of her time, and even fewer women, enjoyed; one at the intersection of art and science, expression and discovery. Joyce Sidman’s biography of Merian, THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science, introduces readers to this singular and fascinating figure.

"THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES is packed with content that puts Merian’s life and work in context....informative, interesting and lovely....Overall this is an engrossing and inspiring book about a captivating, and unfortunately, little known woman."

Europeans in the 1600s were not quite sure where insects came from or much about their lives. Did moths grow out of wool? Were maggots born from drops of dew? Were wasps the product of embers from fire? Ideas about insects were pretty much the same as they had been since the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece! Yet Maria Merian was curious. And as she collected the specimen for her stepfather’s paintings, she paid attention to them, especially the butterflies. Merian grew into a skilled artist as well as a self-taught scientist, over 200 years before women in her culture were allowed to attend universities. She raised silkworms and took notes on their growth and made detailed drawings. She collected and read books about natural science. Later, after she was grown and married to one of Jacob Marrel’s apprentices, Merian found a way to pursue her interests and contribute to her family’s income by selling her paintings and the paints that she mixed herself.

In 1675, Merian published her first book, a collection of paintings of flowers. Despite cultural, and even religious, pressures not to work and not to make scientific explorations, Merian continued both to paint and to research the caterpillars and butterflies she was so compelled by. In fact, her second book was about caterpillars and sought to dispel myths and misinformation. She was only 32-years-old was it was published and the term “entomology” would not be coined for another 75 years.

From Frankfurt to Nuremberg to the sheltered life of the Labadist religious community to the markets of Amsterdam to the coast of Surinam and finally back to Amsterdam, Merian’s life was one of hard work, intellectual curiosity, love and loss. She raised two daughters and published three books, each appearing in multiple editions, in her lifetime. The year she died, Tsar Peter of Russia bought some of her watercolors and in 1730, Carl Linnaeus relied on a French edition of one of her books to classify and name over 100 insects.

THE GIRL WHO DREW BUTTERFLIES is packed with content that puts Merian’s life and work in context; a butterfly glossary, a map of Europe, a look into a typical 17th century engraver’s workshop, a page on 17th century religion in Europe and much more. Though that content often interrupts the main narrative of the biography, making the text potentially confusing to younger readers, the book remains informative, interesting and lovely. Sidman includes color photographs, engravings and images of Maria Merian’s own work, steeping readers in the world in which Merian lived and illustrating how important, influential and groundbreaking her work was. Overall this is an engrossing and inspiring book about a captivating, and unfortunately, little known woman.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 26, 2018

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science
by Joyce Sidman