Maria Sibylla Merian. Plate 25. “Vanilla Plant.” From Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphasibus Insectorum Surinamensium. The Hague: Gosse, 1726. Folio, on sheets 18 1/2 x 13. Engravings by J. Mulder, P. Sluyter and D. Stoopendaal. Hand color. Very good condition.
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An original antique print by Maria Sibylla Merian from her work on the insects of Surinam. As the step-granddaughter of Johann Theodor de Bry and the daughter of the well-known engraver Matthaus Merian the elder, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was well suited to become one of the most notable natural history print-makers of either sex. Known not only as an accomplished artist, but as a respected entomologist, Merian was the first to illustrate the full metamorphoses of many species of butterflies and moths, but her 1699-1701 scientific expedition to South America is one of the most extraordinary stories from the early days of scientific exploration.
In 1685, Merian converted to communistic sect of Labadism and left her husband, Johann Graff, moving with her two daughters to the Labadist colony in Holland. This was located in the castle of the Governor of the Dutch Colony of Surinam (Guiana), whose cabinet of exotic butterflies and insects sparked Merian’s imagination. Thus it was that at the age of fifty-two, Merian set off, with her youngest daughter Dorothea, to study the insects and flora of Surinam.
After two years in the wilderness, recording her observations of plants and the transformations of the native insects, Merian returned to Europe where she produced her important masterpiece, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. This splendid work documented the insects of Surinam in their full life cycles, each shown with a native plant upon which it lived. The first edition was issued in 1705 with 60 plates and then twelve more were added to later editions based on the drawings made in Surinam by her elder daughter, Johanna.
The combination of its scientific accuracy, blending of entomological and botanical elements, and exquisite decorative appearance made this work an instant success. These prints provided for Europeans the first extensive visual record of the exotic colors and forms of the plant and insect life of South America, documenting many of the subjects for the first time. The work has remained popular ever since and today these rare prints are among the most desirable of all natural history images.