In the history of art there are few more singular practitioners than the German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Her work straddles the territories of art and science – it includes some of the most striking, even disturbing, visions I have ever seen. Her life-size studies capture the insects of tropical Suriname, on the northeastern coast of South America, and the plants that sustained them. Pictured in various states of metamorphosis, the insects are explosively beautiful: weird, vibrant, energetic even nightmarish. Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium caused a sensation across Europe when it was first published in 1705. The plates form the basis of an exhibition opening soon at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, a chance to see Merian’s watercolours in the royal collection that were bought by George III.
I saw some of her work at the Getty a few years ago and it’s stunning. Then I read a book about her and was just blown away. She would have been pretty heroic in the 21st century, but for the 17th, well, words fail me. I really recommend reading the book: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd.
Lots more detail about Merian in this piece (PDF) by Kay Etheridge: