Natural historian (1647 - 1717)

Maria Sibylla Merian was born on 2nd April, 1647 in Frankfort on the Maine. Her father, Matthaus Merian, the elder, was a well known publisher. He was in poor health when Maria was born to his second wife and he died in 1650 in nearby Schwalbach. It is part of the folklore of Maria Sibylla that her father prophesied on his deathbed that the name of Merian would be remembered for ever on account of the genius of his then three-year-old daughter. The publishing business was taken over by the children of Matthaus Merian and Maria's mother received a settlement. Maria had nothing to do with the publishing business after that. The More lasting influence was that of Jacob Marrell, whom Maria's mother married in 1651. Marrell was born in 1614 in the Dutch painters' colony, Frankentha, and learned his trade from the flower painter Jan i Davidsz de Heem (1606- 1684) in Utrecht and from the still-life painter Georg Flegel (1563-1638) in Frankfort. He recognized the talent of his stepdaughter and fostered it with assiduity. During his frequently prolonged absences from Frankfort, he entrusted the little Maria Sibylla to his student, Abraham Mignon (1640-1679). After Maria's second marriage ended in divorce in 1685, her eldest daughter, Johanna Helena, married the merchant Jacob Herolt from Bacharach who was involved in trade with the then new Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. The picture that Maria received of South America and the insight into the living world that resulted from her acquaintance with the collectors in Amsterdam such as Nicholas and Jonas Witsen, Livinus Vincent and the professor of anatomy, Frederik Ruysch, may well it is thought, have roused in her the desire to take the long and perilous journey. she received financial assistance from the city fathers in Amsterdam (most likely because of her friendship with Nicholas Witsen (burgomaster) and Jonas Witsen (town clerk). Maria, at the age of fifty-two, and with her youngest teenage daughter in tow, set out on the three month voyage in 1699. For two years she not only ranged the settlements and plantations, but the two women explored the interior and survived many perils. This emerges vividly from the commentaries in the "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium" in 1705. In 1711 Maria suffered a stroke and although greatly disabled, continued her work for a further six years. she died in Amsterdam on 13th January, 1717. The register of deaths lists her as a pauper, but in spite of this she had her own grave. In the same year her daughter published for the first time all three parts of her mothers life's work under the title "Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis" dedicated "Pia Memoriae Matris Ejus Maria Sybillae Merian" and accompanied by the portrait of Merian in her old age by Houbraken. There are a number of versions of how the entire works of this extraordinary woman ended up in Russia. the most reliable record is that the works were purchased by Tsar Peter the Great, personally, during a visit to western Europe, only days before Merian's death in 1717. Upon the Tsar's death in 1725, the works were presented to the Academy of Sciences where they reside today.

We thank Terry Browne of Dublin Ireland for writing this summary.

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