Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717), Plate 10. The Cotton Plant [The butterfly is possibly Parides lysander]
Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717)
“Plate 10. The Cotton Plant” [The butterfly is possibly Parides lysander]
from The Insects of Surinam
Watercolor and bodycolor with gum arabic over lightly etched outlines on paper
Inscribed in pencil ‘10,’ and in ink ‘Helicopis Endymion...’ and ‘Hylon arborcum Surinam’
Paper size: 19 ¾ x 13 ¾ in.
MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN (German, 1647-1717)
Transfer-print watercolors from The Insects of Surinam
The chief motif of this design is a very ancient cultivation: the cotton plant. Closely related to our mallows and lime trees, these are tropical and subtropical plants. The long fibers originally served the propagation of the plant, as in the willow herb and the poplar, but man soon began to make use of their favorable properties and spun the fibers to make nets and cloth. The inhabitants of Central and South America cultivated cotton before Columbus came. Merian notes that the American Indians make hammocks from the spun fibers, in which they spend the night. The cottonseeds, too, which contain oil, are utilized. On the plant Merian found two caterpillars. In the upper corner is the Helicopis cupido which belongs to the chiefly tropical family of Erycinidae of whose more than one thousand one hundred species only two have reached Europe. The presence of only four legs is indicative of the male. It is a little tailed butterfly with golden spots on the underside of its secondary wings. The Indians gave it a name which means “animal of love,” and Linné, who could not have known the Indian name, coincidentally called this species “cupido” after the Roman god of love. The white tiger-moth in the bottom corner is related to Hypantria cunea, which in 1940 was carried from North America to Hungary and since that time infested all adjacent countries.
Descriptions of each plant adapted from J.Harvey’s commentary to the Folio Society facsimile of the Surinam Album (London, 2006) and Merian’s text for the Insects of Surinam.
One glimpse of any of Merian’s transfer-print watercolors from the Insects of Surinam reveals the main reasons for such celebration. Even to those who do not know of her work, this is a stunning sight. Her colors are alternately subtle and vibrant, capturing the quality of her subjects with striking naturalism. Yet while she maintains a scientist’s eye for precision, her creative decisions and compositions give these images a style that is distinctly hers. Each image demonstrates Merian’s masterful grasp of detail and nuance, as well as her outstanding ability to combine science and art. Equally significant, to early 18th century Europeans, her illustrations represented the first views of these American plants and insects.
These spectacular examples of her work are from one of a very few transfer-print watercolor volumes known to exist. Merian herself prepared the volume. After an uncolored print was made, she applied dampened paper to it, pressing by hand to create an image of the print in reverse. In this volume, she chose to block out the plate numbers and then add by hand, to some images, numbers, and notations. Merian then painstakingly watercolored the dried paper herself, ensuring that the colors were true to the specimens she had seen in South America, and also allowing her style to emerge with the greatest clarity. The volume was not meant for sale, and its intended purpose cannot be known with any certainty. Perhaps it was created as a gift for a wealthy and important patron, perhaps Merian meant to keep it herself. What can be stated without a doubt is that these splendid images represent a unique opportunity to acquire original works by an artist who broke barriers as a woman, as a scientist and artist, and whose accomplishments are no less impressive today than they were in her time.
Please feel free to contact us with questions by phone at 215.735.8811,
or by email at loricohen@aradergalleries.
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