Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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

A girl kneels in her garden. It is 1660, and she has just turned thirteen; too old for a proper German girl to be crouching in the dirt, according to her mother. She is searching for something--eggs no bigger than pinpricks, leaf edges scalloped by the jaws of an inching worm.

Ah! She has found it; a crinkled brown cocoon, anchored on a branch like a sailor's hammock. Any changes since yesterday?

Her neighbors despise the creatures that fascinate her. They believe all flying, creeping things are born if filth and decay. But for years she has gathered flowers for her stepfather's studio for his still-life paintings. She has studied the creatures who ride on their petals. She has sketched and painted them. In learning the skills of an artist, she has learned to look and watch and wonder.

Despite the tales that insects and worms were the devil's creatures, the minions of witches, Maria Merian suspected that the lovely butterflies (called summer birds) she added to enliven her flower paintings were born from eggs just as birds were.

Maria's father, Matthaus Merian, and stepfather, Jakob Marrel, were noted engravers of flowers in Frankfurt, and early on, Maria's artistic talents were recognized. She was set to gathering flowers, coloring the drawings by her stepfather and his craftsmen, and even taught the art of copper engraving to produce prints to sell. Girls were not allowed to become apprentices, but Maria worked as one without the title. She became a master of the art of water coloring, making brushes, grinding the materials for the pigment, preparing the paper or parchment for the image, and etching the copper plates. Soon she was turning out works worthy of sale to the most discriminating customer.

Marrel noticed her energy and her deft hands. She should not be encouraged to master oil paints, or paint figures or city scenes. These were the province of men. But she was one of the best students he'd ever had. He taught her all he knew of painting flowers for profit.

But Maria had something else besides artistic ability. She had scientific curiosity. In the midst of her womanly household duties and her work in the studio, she made time to study the insect life that were occasionally added to the flower prints the Marrel studio produced. She collected the tiny eggs of flies, moths, and butterflies, gathered cocoons and chrysalises and watched them carefully, making detailed drawings and keeping notes.

And she made a startling discovery--the concept of metamorphosis. Even flies did not, as Aristotle had taught, generate spontaneously from dung and carrion. Flies laid eggs, which hatched into larvae, maggots, which finally morphed into flies. Vivum ex vivo! Life arises from life.

Meticulously documented with images and observations, Maria's discoveries replaced superstition with empirical science. Without Merian there could have been no Darwin.

Maria Merian produced three celebrated illustrative texts of flowers, plants, and insects, and in her work she persisted in picturing her insect subjects in their natural environment, with the plants they needed for survival, making her also one of the first ecological scientists of her time. The pinnacle product of her work involved a year spent in Dutch Surinam in South America, and her paintings and descriptions of the exotic animals and plants she studied there became a landmark work picturing an almost unknown world.

The rains come, and the blazing sun. I must find a safe place to become who I was meant to be.

Like her butterflies, becoming what Maria was meant to be was not easy. Joyce Sidman's extraordinary biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), extravagantly illustrated with the Caldecott-winning artist's own art as well as the prints created by her her subject, Maria Merian, portrays the metamorphosis of this enlightened seventeenth-century woman whose energy and talent transformed her into one of the foremost observational scientists of her time. Sidman uses this metaphor, staging her narration of Merian's life and work to parallel the stages of insect development, even utilizing the vocabulary--Egg, Hatching, Instars, Molting, Pupa, Eclosing, Expanding... and Flight as chapter headings in a exquisitely-told story of a landmark life, with an opening glossary, and appended timeline, quote sources, bibliography, further reading and index. To tell Maria Merian's full story requires both art and science, and Sidman's latest book is a stunningly glorious and beautiful biography of a woman whose love for both art and life, against all odds, helped transform human science.

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