- Maria Sibylla Merian and Daughters: Women of Art and Science
The Maria Sibylla Merian industry is still in full swing. The industry was launched with a 1997 exhibit and exhibition volume produced by the Historisches Museum of Frankfurt am Main (Merian's home town) in celebration of the 350th anniversary of her birth. It continues with a beautiful documentary from Flare Films, "Out of the Chrysalis: A Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian," released in spring 2009. It has reached an apex in Ella Reitsma's exquisitely illustrated biography of this amazing scientist and artist. Her book, accompanying an exhibition of Merian's work at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is an absolute "must have" for Merian scholars and fans.
Much has been written about Maria Sibylla Merian. She was a celebrated craftswoman in her time, much loved for her innovative scientific illustration and artistic technique. She was a business woman: in Frankfurt, Nuremberg, and, later, Amsterdam, Merian sold books, pigments, natural historical curiosities, and pattern books along with fine silks, satins, and linens painted with flowers of her own design. She was a divorcée who reclaimed her famous father's name as her own. She trained two daughters and a number of other young women in her art. She experimented with technique and eventually developed a type of watercolor that withstood multiple washings. Most important, perhaps, she was the first European woman to voyage solely in pursuit of her science. [End Page 626]
Reitsma has much to add to the current literature. She has read everything—Merian's publications, letters, and wills—and she has seen every work of art produced by Merian's hand. Reitsma's particular interest in this volume is to draw attention to Merian's daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria. Her purpose is twofold: to render them their due and, as importantly, to disentangle the separate hands of the three women who very often worked as one. Reitsma is brilliant in her analysis of artistic technique, which at times has very real-world consequence. As she mentions, Merian's drawings fetch a much higher price than those of either of her daughters. Woe to the collector who has been disappointed by Reitsma's recent discoveries!
The Merian household was a family business. Merian paintings were in much demand, and the studio output was prodigious. Looking at this production four centuries later, Reitsma wonders how one woman could have found and reared hundreds of caterpillars, described their behavior, drawn them in different stages of life, printed those drawings, published them, carried on a business in specimens (dried and preserved in alcohol), colored books and prints, written letters to collectors, marketed her work not only at home but also abroad, and dealt with the legal aspects associated with running a business. The answer: Merian was not a single superwoman but in fact three women who worked as one.
Reitsma shows in glorious detail how mother and daughters worked together—sometimes on a single sheet of vellum—very often signing the famous mother's name. Family fortune depended on the reputation of the craftsmistress. A top-notch detective, Reitsma compares family signatures on letters, wills, and deeds and identifies the real Maria Sibylla Merian's script as fine, small, and firm. The same name, when signed in flowing and large characters, Reitsma attributes to the younger daughter, Dorothea Maria (112–4). This hand appears as the bride's signature on the marriage notice of Dorothea Maria to Philip Hendrik, now preserved in the Amsterdam city archives. The bride, in the excitement of the moment perhaps, originally signed the marriage certificate "Maria Sibylla Graaf" (Merian's married name). But, as Reitsma discovered, the name Sibylla is crossed out, and "Dorothea" written in its place (112). Johanna Helena, the older daughter, also wrote and signed letters—in a recognizably "angular" script (114)—in Dutch and French for her mother (who tended to write...