Exploring Maria Sibylla Merian Symposium May 2014

Artis Library (Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) hosted a three-day symposium titled Exploring Maria Sibylla Merian on May 26-28, 2014. 

The program opened on the evening of May 26 with a reception and presentation and continued the following day with panels of invited scholars who discussed their research on Merian’s life and her work in both art and science. On the third day the discussion focused on the challenges and future of research on Merian. 

The themes of the symposium were Merian’s biography, her work in the context of early modern entomologists and artists, the biology/ecology in Merian’s work, and her influence on both art and science. This symposium also marked the foundation of the Maria Sibylla Merian Society, which began preliminary work on an international conference to be held in 2017, the 300th anniversary of the death of Merian.


Monday 26 May 2014

  • 19:00–1930: registration
  • 19:30–19:45: welcome and introduction by Hans Mulder, Curator of the Artis Library
  • 19:45–21:00: Jo Francis and John Fuegi, Presentation of Maria Sibylla Merian: documentary work in progress
  • 21:00: reception

Tuesday 27 May 2014

  • 9:00: library open
  • 9:30–10:00: Kurt Wettengl, 1647–1717, 1967, 1997, 2017: Why and how to present Merian?
    • The talk reflected on the Merian exhibition in Nürnberg 1967 and the exhibition in Frankfurt in 1997, touching on questions about the background of the exhibitions and the different intentions of exhibitions. This presentation also reflected on the necessity of new investigations into Merian’s life and work.
  • 10:00–10:15: discussion
  • 10:15–10:35: Eric Jorink, Studying insects before Merian: Johannes Goedaert and Johannes Swammerdam
    • Two Dutchmen, Johannes Goedaert (1617-1668) and Johannes Swammerdam (1637-1680) brought insects, considered as the ‘less esteemed of God’s creatures’, to the center of scientific and artistic attention. Basing themselves on philosophical and religious arguments, both argued that insects were among nature’s most intricate and ingenious creatures, showing the Creator’s magnificence par excellence, and their books were largely responsible for arousing interest in collecting and studying insects.
  • 10:35–11:00: coffee
  • 11:00–11:20: Brian Ogilvie, From lay expert to fabulist
    • Maria Sibylla Merian’s engraved works on insects were widely circulated in the eighteenth century and were used and cited favorably by leading naturalists, but in the 19th century, her mistakes were often cited as grounds for rejecting her authority entirely. This paper examined how this shift in naturalists’ assessment of Merian is related to changes in European society and in the organization and practice of entomology.
  • 11:20–11:50: discussion
  • 11:50–12:10: Kay Etheridge, The ecology of the Raupen books
    • Merian’s Raupen (caterpillar) books contain a wealth of insightful observations on interactions among the species portrayed – the very foundation of the study of ecology. This presentation focused on her study of factors central to ecological science, including her descriptions of environmental effects on insect development and abundance, and her observations on insect food choice and feeding behavior.
  • 12:10–12.:30: Katharina Schmidt-Loske, Merian’s holistic view of the tiny
    • Merian developed a unique style of drawing insects and their development stages and is famous for depicting the caterpillars’ food plants. Her perspective, details of the insects’ structure, and documentation of parasitic cycles characterize her work. This presentation compared Merian’s still life studies, her ‘Studienbuch’, caterpillar book and entomological watercolours with those of Johannes Goedaert, Wenceslaus Hollar, Herman and his son Anton Henstenburgh, and Johannes Bronckhorst.
  • 12:30–13:00: discussion
  • 13:00–14:30: lunch
  • 14:30–14:50: Truusje Goedings, Contemporary clients for Merian’s colored copies
    • Merian advertised and sold both colored and uncolored copies of her heavily illustrated books. Hand-colored books were highly profitable and must have been a major source of income for Merian. This paper examined some of her contemporary clients for these rather expensive materials, their interests, and what they bought.
  • 14:50–15:20: Brigitte Wirth and Florence Pieters, Challenges in transcribing Merian’s correspondence
    • Brigitte Wirth discovered a major transcription error in a letter written by M.S. Merian in 1711. Wirth’s correction throws new light on the coloring procedures in Merian’s atelier. Furthermore, the letter helps to clarify price differences between several types of hand-colored copies of her books. In several letters the Amsterdam trader Baltasar Scheid (circa 1660 -1724) wrote to J.G. Volkamer about Merian’s Metamorphosis, describing its development in a few words from the early beginning to the end. With the details given in these letters it is possible to specify the time of production of this book. The English botanist Richard Bradley, who visited Merian in 1714, mentioned original drawings and hand-colored books he saw in her house in his correspondence with James Petiver. The presentation will also discuss how comparison of transcriptions and translations of Merian’s letters revealed differences in meaning that should be corrected.
  • 15:20–15:40: Leslie Overstreet, The printing history of Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium
    • In 1705 Merian published her classic work Surinam work in two languages and with plates in four modes: uncolored on paper, hand-colored on paper, and hand-colored counter-proofs on either paper or vellum. Through the 18th century, five further “editions” were produced, again in several languages both uncolored and colored. This presentation demonstrates how surviving copies provide evidence of significant divergence of later editions from the original coloring, raising questions about the scientific reliability of those versions.
  • 15.40–16.20: discussion
  • 16:20–16:45: tea
  • 16:45–17:15: Joos van de Plas, Second life
    • Joos van de Plas, a contemporary artist, will address her research in which she investigated the alleged link between specimens in the Wiesbaden Gerning Collection and Merian’s work. Van de Plas visually compared the dried insects in the Gerning Collection with the life-size depictions in Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium; she verified her findings using computer comparisons and by additional comparisons with specimens in other 17th- and 18th-century collections. Van de Plas also related how her decade-long investigation profoundly influenced her own art.
  • 17:15–17:30: discussion
  • Dinner for participants

Wednesday 28 May 2014

  • 9:30–10:40: plenary session: Addressing the challenges of research on Merian
  • 10:40–11:00: brak
  • 11:00–12:30: plenary session: Towards an international conference in 2017
  • 12:30–14:00: lunch
  • 14:00–17:00: opportunity to have a look at the Merian collection (and related items) of Artis Library (Special Collections, University of Amsterdam)
  • 14:00–17:00: possibility for further discussion in working groups
  • 14:00–17:00: possibility for a guided walking tour to Merian’s address in the Kerkstraat, along the zoological garden of the Royal Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra (nowadays abbreviated to Artis – founded 1838) and the old botanical garden (founded 1638 and visited by Merian)