Colourful Caterpillars
Maria Sibylla Merian – Caiman crocodilus with a snake

Colourful Caterpillars

How Maria Sibylla Merian Embraced Art and Science
Agnieszka Drotkiewicz
time 12 minutes

A gifted painter; a resourceful mother who left an unsuccessful marriage and raised her daughters on her own; a scholar who at the age of 53, 100 years before Darwin, travelled to the end of the world and proved that what Aristotle wrote about the life of insects was absolute nonsense.

The year is 1700, Suriname, South America. The lush green of manioc fields, the exuberant vegetation, the fruits of bright colours and intense tastes. It’s hot and humid. The Surinamese rainforest – allied with its mysterious universe of insects, with its thick scramble of trees and bushes – guards most of these Dutch territories like a strong fortification. Anyone who wanders into the middle of this forest risks getting caught in an inescapable trap.

The two women who came here from Amsterdam aren’t afraid. They force their way through the forest wearing European dresses. Their skirts get caught up in roots; the branches entangle their hair or sometimes scratch their cheeks. The skin underneath tightly-fastened corsets is sweaty. They have to be careful so that the insects that bite painfully don’t get under the corsets. At any moment, a snake can slither down from a tree…

They are Maria Sibylla Merian, a painter and botanist, and her daughter Dorothea. Together they trudge through the Surinamese rainforest to sketch insects and plants. They also carry boxes – every once in a while, they manage to collect some larvae. Merian nurtures them later in her home: she feeds them, observes them, makes drawings at each stage of their development. She did this as a little girl in Frankfurt, as a married woman in Nuremberg, as a divorcee in Amsterdam. Now she does it in the kitchen of the


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