Bernard Merian Book

Merian: Bringing home a pioneering woman of science to TEFAF

To mark the 300th anniversary year of her death, Shapero Rare Books will showcase the work of Maria Sibylla Merian at this year’s TEFAF, held in Maastricht from March 10th-19th 2017.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) a German-born woman who lived in the Netherlands, managed a successful career as an artist, botanist, naturalist and entomologist yet is only recently being celebrated as a pioneering woman of science after setbacks to women’s roles in Europe resulted in her  efforts being largely forgotten.

Last year the stunning plates from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1726 – 1730), one of two works Shapero will be taking to TEFAF, formed the basis of an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace and Merian will be celebrated at an international symposium in Amsterdam this June.

Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

The second work offered by Shapero is Merian’s first book, Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung [The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars] (1679).

An enterprise like no other as it was the first time that anyone had drawn the full life cycle of butterflies. Rather than depicting them as clinical specimens against a plain background, Merian examined the relationship with the wider natural world, portraying them against flora and fauna, something that had not been done before.

From her early teenage years she had been obsessed with caterpillars, and Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung was the culmination of almost 20 years of observation.

In 1699 the City of Amsterdam granted her permission to travel to the then Dutch colony of Surinam. Her expedition was extraordinary in many ways not least she was perhaps the first person to plan a purely scientific journey. Also at a time when expeditions were very male preserve, she travelled only with her younger daughter the artist, Dorothea Maria Graff, and without protection.  Further demonstrating her self-will and determination she financed the expedition through sales of her artwork: new, exotic species of insects sketched from life and then painted on vellum.

After a highly adventurous two years, malaria forced them to curtail their expedition and return to Amsterdam. The result of Merian’s work became the magnificent Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. It features 72 stunning engravings, beautifully coloured by hand, with life-size depictions of the animals in their natural habitat – a nature that was both beautiful but true to life.

Plate LXIX, Crocodile with a coral snake⠀

Merian’s innovative approach influenced important naturalists and artists such as Mark Catesby, William Bartram, and John James Audubon, who all depicted animals and their plants’ hosts and habitats.

With more than 250 illustrations in fine original hand-colour, the two works offered by Shapero Rare Books are especially remarkable for their binding: both volumes are presented in the same dark blue luxurious binding, which is of exceptional rarity. This set brings together the first editions in French of each work, both published in Amsterdam.

Illustration of a hydra by Albertus Seba

During her work on the insects of Surinam, Merian made use of the cabinet of an Amsterdam apothecary, Albertus Seba, because of the extraordinary array of natural rarities it contained. A compulsive collector of everything natural and unusual, Seba put together one of the most remarkable cabinets de curiosités, also called Wunderkammern.

To celebrate his achievement, Seba embarked on publishing an illustrated description of the collection. This resulted in one of the most lavish and curious natural history works, an impressive, 8-volume book, published over 30 years. These remarkable folios boast about 450 engravings, all coloured by hand, with striking compositions showing plants, fossils, minerals and all sorts of animals including a seven-headed hydra! This is a fantastic complement to Merian’s masterpieces, and Shapero Rare Books is especially proud to have the opportunity to present them all side by side.

TEFAF Maastricht. March 10-19, 2017

Shapero Rare Books has exhibited at TEFAF for over 20 years and one of the few dealers selected specializing in rare books and decorative prints.

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