A pineapple plant with cockroaches on its green leaves.

Maria Sibylla Merian: pioneering artist of flora and fauna

Browse our range of Maria Sibylla Merian prints on the British Museum Shop.

Discover the life of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), a remarkable 17th-century botanical artist.

An unconventional figure, Maria Sibylla Merian is best known for her publication of drawings documenting the natural world of Suriname, which were created with support from her daughters. The strikingly composed pieces are notable for their artistic merit and contribution to natural science and brought her international acclaim. Today, the Museum holds two large volumes of her brightly coloured watercolours illustrating the wildlife she encountered.

Explore her life, extraordinary journey across the world, and how her family were integral to her success.


Maria Sibylla Merian was a botanical artist of exceptional originality and a respected scholar of the natural sciences. She was also a successful businesswoman who paid little attention to the conventions of her day.

Her fame rests on a remarkable journey from 1699 to 1701 to the Dutch colony of Surinam on the equatorial northeast coast of South America. Made at her own expense, she was accompanied by her younger daughter Dorothea Maria (1678–1743). Today, Suriname is the smallest independent country in South America. It resulted in a magnificent work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium ('The transformation of the insects of Suriname') published in Amsterdam in 1705, which brought her international acclaim.

The work was a large volume containing 60 engraved plates after Merian's designs. It showed the life cycles of butterflies, moths and insects alongside plants and animals of the region, to which Merian added lively commentaries on diet and habitat. The publication was not only a major contribution to the history of natural science, it was also the first-ever book to be devoted to Suriname.

The British Museum holds two large volumes of brightly coloured and strikingly composed watercolours on vellum (prepared animal skin) made by Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughters Johanna Helena (1668–1723) and Dorothea, whom she trained as assistants to work on her publications.


A pineapple plant with cockroaches on its green leaves.
Maria Sibylla Merian,  'A pineapple surrounded by cockroaches'. Watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, about 1701–5. Merian considered the pineapple 'the most outstanding of all the edible fruit' and decided that this image should take pride of place as the first plate in her Suriname Insects book of 1705. While in Suriname, she noted 'Cockroaches are the most infamous of all insects in America on account of the great damage they cause to all inhabitants by spoiling their wool, linen, food and drinks.'

Early life

Maria Sybilla was born in Frankfurt to a dynasty of successful print publishers. She was the daughter of Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593–1650) and his second wife, Johanna Sibylla Heimy, a French-speaking Calvinist. At this time Calvinism – a Protestant branch of Christianity established by Jean Calvin in Switzerland in the early sixteenth century – had spread across northern Europe, England and Scotland. By 1626, Maria's father had taken over a publishing firm established by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598), the grandfather of his first wife Maria Magdalena de Bry.

This family of engravers and topographical artists were originally Calvinist refugees from Antwerp. Once settled in Frankfurt, they achieved international fame through their lavishly illustrated books on Protestant voyages. One such volume was India Occidentalis, better known as the America series (14 volumes. 1590–1634), which explored the New World. These volumes effectively introduced the customs and habits of Indigenous American tribes to European audiences – some engravings were made after the famous watercolours by John White (active 1585–1593). They amazed readers with lurid accounts of Spanish conquistadores’ treatment of indigenous people, including torture and murder. A second edition of the work was printed in 1630 by Maria's father, Matthäus Merian.

In 1633, Matthäus initiated a series on contemporary events called Theatrum Europaeum, followed in 1646 by a major topographical series of central Europe named Topographia Germaniae. Both these works ran into several volumes and were completed by his heirs. Matthäus died when Maria was three-years-old, but the Frankfurt business continued to flourish under her half-brother Matthäus Merian the Younger (1621–1687), an artist who specialised in portraits.

Early ambitions

This background of art and business enterprise contributed to Maria Sibylla's ambitions. Obsessed with the origins and development of insects from the age of thirteen, she reared caterpillars for more than fifty years, recording all stages of metamorphosis. Her first-hand knowledge of the subject was an important foundation for the later development of entomology (the study of insects) as a zoological discipline.

After her father’s death, her mother married the flower-painter Jacob Marrell (1614–1681). He stimulated Maria Sibylla’s interest in the natural world and helped her develop a highly pictorial style of drawing in bright colours on vellum. In 1665, she married one of her step-father’s pupils, Johann Graff (1637–1701), and they moved to his native city Nuremberg, where Johanna and Dorothea were born. Here, she published three volumes of a pattern book containing traditional style flower engravings, dating from 1675 to 1680.

Her first scientific book on metamorphosis was called Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung ('The wondrous transformation of caterpillars and their remarkable diet of flowers'). It was published by her husband in Nuremberg in two parts, in 1679 and 1683, each illustrated with fifty engravings of caterpillars, chrysalises, butterflies and moths in their natural habitat; with a third part published posthumously by her daughter, Dorothea, in 1717. Descriptions and engravings were based on Merian's own painstaking observation of the lives of butterflies and moths. 

Leaving Germany

Merian cannot have been happy in Nuremberg. She spent more time in Frankfurt after her mother was widowed in 1681 and separated from her husband in 1685. Both Maria Sibylla and her mother were deeply pious and they moved with Johanna and Dorothea to West Friesland in the Netherlands to join a Labadist community – a Protestant movement named after its French founder Jean de Labadie (1610–1674) at Schloss Waltha, to which her half-brother Caspar already belonged.   
On her mother’s death in 1691, Merian moved with her daughters to Amsterdam, which through the exploits of the Dutch East India Company was at the centre of world trade and the home of numerous scholarly collections. It was here Merian found her true vocation and became associated with influential scientists of the city. They included Dr Nicolaas Witsen (the Burgomaster of Amsterdam) and Frederick Ruysch (a professor of anatomy) who gave her access to their prized collections of specimens. She wrote in the introduction to her Suriname book: 'In Holland I saw with wonderment the beautiful creatures brought back from the East and West Indies'.

Traveling to Suriname

For a short time, the Labadists started a community called La Providence, which included a sugar plantation in Suriname. This gave Merian the idea of travelling to the country to further her studies in wildlife. Such journeys were only ever undertaken by men connected to the sugar trade and were hazardous at the best of times, let alone for a 52-year-old woman travelling with just her daughter, Dorothea.

Arriving by boat across the Atlantic, once there she made repeated expeditions into the 'wilderness' – the tropical interior of the country. She collected specimens, feeding them and making drawings as she waited for them to develop. She found these journeys harsh and it's clear she relied on enslaved people to help her. 'One could find a great many things in the forest if it were passable' she wrote. 'It is so densely overgrown with thistles and thorn bushes that I had to send my slaves ahead with axe in hand to hack an opening for me to proceed even to a certain extent, which nevertheless was very difficult.' 

It seems Merian's work was viewed peculiarly by those around her. She was jeered at by the Dutch colonists 'for looking for other things than sugar in the country'. She listed a number of interesting plants such as cherries, vanilla, figs and grapes, which she believed could be usefully cultivated if, as she explained, 'the country was inhabited by a more industrious and less selfish population,' a reference to the Dutch colonists.

She returned to Amsterdam in 1701 with sketches, samples of pressed plants, dried insects, and various amphibious and reptilian specimens including a crocodile preserved in alcohol. She spent her remaining years in Amsterdam focusing on the funding of her Suriname publication, with her own engravings and commentary, and the production of associated versions of her watercolour compositions.


A portrait of wildlife including a passionflower, caterpillars, flies and green leaves.
Maria Sibylla Merian, 'Passionflower, with its fruit,  with pupae, caterpillars and two flies'. Watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, about 1701–5. Merian observed that passionflower 'runs like a bind-weed; it is very suitable for growing in a garden, although the Dutch in Surinam make no use of it… and has a very sweet scent which can be smelled from a great distance'.

Technique and influence

Merian worked in the studio from sketches made on the spot, which she transformed into detailed compositions in bright colours applied in watercolour and bodycolour on large sheets of vellum. The drawings were deluxe versions for collectors of the designs she made for her large print publications.

Published in 1705, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensis, remains her most famous. It was conceived as a beautiful and desirable book that would appeal, as she explained in her preface, to both 'lovers of art' and 'lovers of insects'. Her popularity is based on her innovation of representing insects in a naturalistic context, instead of in diagrammatic style which was the prevailing fashion. The influence of Merian's work is seen in 18th-century artists Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch and Georg Dionysius Ehret

Later life and legacy

Merian’s work was greatly admired by natural scientists of the period, including the founder of the British Museum Sir Hans Sloane, who acquired the two large volumes of her drawings for the collection. The purchase of an album containing 60 drawings was negotiated through his associate James Petiver. In 1706, he wrote to Dr John Philip Breyne a botanist in Danzig, that a collection of Merian's 'Butterflies Moths etc.. painted on vellum beyond compare hath cost Dr Sloan on my recommendation about 200 Guinneas'. This considerable sum of money equates to just over £50,000 today demonstrating the respect with which Merian was viewed by her peers and how much her work was sought after.

Poor health towards the end of her life culminated in a stroke in 1715. However, workshop production continued. Johanna, then living in Suriname, sent samples while Dorothea worked on the publication of the third volume of her caterpillar book. This appeared just after Maria's death in Amsterdam in 1717, at the age of 69.   

Maria Sibylla Merian's legacy is that of an intrepid and unconventional figure who forged a successful independent career as an artist. She boldly travelled with her daughter to South America making new discoveries about the natural world, which her artistic gifts, and those of her talented offspring, brought to international attention on their return.


Three tarantula spiders climbing on a tree branch crawling with ants. One is attacking a humming-bird.
Dorothea Graff or Johanna Herolt after Maria Sibylla Merian, 'Tarantulas, one attacking a humming-bird, spiders and ants, on a guava tree'. Watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, about 1701–5. Unusually large spiders and ants were evidently popular with Europeans unfamiliar with creatures of such proportions. This sheet is a smaller version of a drawing today in the Royal Collection. Merian noted that the largest spiders are to be found on guava trees and that certain ants 'can eat whole trees bare as a broom handle in a single night'. However, tarantulas do not eat birds and it has been suggested that this idea arose because of Merian's arresting image.  

Dorothea and Johanna

Merian's deep personal and working relationships with her daughters were integral to her success. She trained Dorothea and Johanna as assistants to follow in her footsteps and they worked closely on her publications.

House mice, melons and nuts is one of the very few works signed by Johanna. In 1692, she married Jacob Hendrik Herolt, a merchant who traded with Suriname. They moved to the country in 1711, where her husband became the director of an orphanage in Paramaribo. Johanna died there in 1723. 

Attributed to Dorothea, the drawing A Spectacled Caiman struggling with a Red Pipe Snake, was published as plate 69 in the posthumous 1719 edition of Suriname Insects (Johannes Oosterwijk, Amsterdam). Merian collected many reptiles while in Suriname and it seems possible Dorothea specialised in drawing them. 

Dorothea met her first husband, a surgeon called Philipp Hendriks, while in South America. After his death, she married the Swiss painter Georg Gsell in 1717. Following her mother's death that same year, she published the third volume of Maria Sibylla's work on European caterpillars. She later moved with her husband to St Petersburg, where they worked for Tsar Peter the Great and founded an art school that had its own printing presses and publishing house. Here she was appointed to the Academy of Sciences, to whom she sold thirty of her mother’s watercolours. She died in the city in 1743.

See Maria Sibylla Merian's work

The two volumes of Maria Sibylla Merian's work in the collection are available to view by appointment in the Prints and Drawings study room. You can also see all drawings by Maria Sibylla  Merian and her daughters on collection online.