Maria Sibylla Merian was born on 2 or 3 April 1647 in Frankfurt (Germany) and grew up among artists. She was one of the first who studied the metamorphoses of insects, preceded by the Dutch naturalists Johannes Goedaert (1617–1668) and Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680). From 1674 she began to investigate these metamorphoses systematically, resulting in her first scientific book Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumen-nahrung [The wondrous transformation of caterpillars and their remarkable diet of flowers]. The first part of this book was published in Nuremberg in 1679, containing fifty plates in quarto, all engraved by herself, and the second part in Frankfurt in 1683. Now she had discovered her definitive style, depicting the life cycle of a butterfly on the caterpillar’s host plant in natural size on one plate, in a beautiful lay-out.

In 1685 she entered a Labadist cloister in Friesland, joined by her mother and her two daughters. However, as early as 1691 she left this cloister and settled in Amsterdam. From here she undertook an expedition to Surinam in 1699 to study its superb natural history, accompanied by her younger daughter. She stayed there for only 21 months because she became seriously ill, but she recovered and the publication of her folio volume on the metamorphoses of Surinam insects in 1705 made her world famous among natural scientists and art historians alike.