Women Naturalists and the Botanical Arts

'Rhapontic,' A Curious Herbal, Plate 202

Seeking New Worlds

Constrained by convention and often regulation, it was rare for early modern women to achieve financial success or reknown as naturalists and artists. Maria Sibylla Merian, working as an artist in Germany, then using her considerable artistic skills for her entymological research in Surinam, and Elizabeth Blackwell, raised in Scotland, then finding an artistic and scientific career at Chelsea Physic Garden, London, were clearly exceptional in their ability to form business relationships and navigate the constraints of the period.  Later in the eighteenth century, Romantic-era women such as poet Anna Seward, whose fraught friendship with Erasmus Darwin would test their professional careers, would continue to explore the intersection of botany, the literary, and visual arts.  Special Collections is fortunate to hold four engraved, hand-painted plates by Maria Sibylla Merian and ten (with eight displayed below) engraved, hand-painted plates by Elizabeth Blackwell. 

'Jasmine and Snake,' from Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium. Plate XLVI

Maria Sibylla Merian

Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium


'Jasmine and Snake'

Plate XLVI

Maria Sibylla Merian, Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium. The Hague: Gosse, 1726.

German-born naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian was raised in a family of painters and printers.  She was the step-granddaughter of Johann Theodor de Bry and the daughter of the well-known engraver and publisher Matthaus Merian the elder. At only sixteen, she married Andreas Graff, one of her father's students.  Merian achieved reknown as an artist in her own right: her artistic skill in watercolor, oil, and copperplate engraving would earn her a place in Joachim Sandart's history of German art, German Academy, and his likening of her to the goddess Minerva (Davis). 

Merian's study of the life cycle of insects began when she was only a child.  She would later become well known for her entymological work, conducted between 1699 and 1701, in the Dutch colony of Surinam, where she studied native insects in their habitat. 

The result was Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.  Merian's work differed from that of the predecessors in the field.  Her interests rested less with classification and taxonomy (Linnaeus' work was still some three decades in the future) than with the “formation, propagation, and metamorphosis of creatures ... and the nature of their diet,” each engraved, hand-painted plate a reflection of the ecological communities in which the insects of Surinam lived (Merian in Wulf).

In her ecological approach to entymology, Merian was clearly ahead of her time.  Andrea Wulf describes Merian's considerable influence, noting that "the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus would later use her drawings to classify insects, and Germany’s most celebrated poet Goethe (who also wrote a treatise on the metamorphosis of plants) praised Merian for her ability to move “between art and science, between nature observation and artistic intention.” 

The first edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium was issued in 1705 with 60 plates.  Twelve additional plates were added by her daughter Johanna from original drawings by Merian in later editions.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Histoire des Insectes de L'EuropeAmsterdam: Jean Frederic Bernard, 1730

Histoire des Insectes de L'Europe provides a smaller-scale view of Merian's entymological and botanical studies.  These prints are from a lesser known study of European insects produced by Merian a number of years after Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.  Histoire des Insectes de L'Europe was published after Merian's death by her daughter, Dorothea. 

Elizabeth Blackwell, A Curious Herbal: containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick. London: Samuel Harding, M.D.CC.XXXVII. [1737]. 

Together with Maria Sibylla Merian's Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphosibus Insectorum Surinamensium, which featured the insects of Surinam within their botanical habitat, Blackwell's A Curious Herbal is among the earliest publications on botany by women.  

Just four years after establishing a printing studio in London in 1730, Elizabeth Blackwell and her husband, Alexander, encountered financial difficulties.  He was accused of breach of trade for having established the studio without having served the required four-year apprenticeship, resulting in a two-year stint in debtors prison. 

Blackwell's Curious Herbal grew out of her efforts to support her son and to pay her husband's debts.  She studied from live specimens collected from around the world at Chelsea Physic Garden, established in 1673 by London apothecaries to grow medicinal plants. 

Elizabeth Blackwell's background in drawing and painting, as well as her time in the printing business, served her well.  She drew, engraved, and hand-painted each of the 500 hundred illustrations, her husband assisting with textual translation based on his medical background (British Library).

Special Collections' D.K. Bailey Collection holds ten of these individual engraved, handpainted prints.