Maria Sybilla Merian’s Metamorphosis of a Small Emperor Moth on a Damson Plum
Getty Conversations

A conversation with Dr. Stephanie Schrader, Curator, J. Paul Getty Museum and Dr. Beth Harris, Executive Director, Smarthistory in front of Metamorphosis of a Small Emperor Moth on a Damson Plum, plate 13 of the Caterpillar Book, 1679, Maria Sybilla Merian. Translucent and opaque watercolor over counterproof print, on parchment, 18.7 x 14.9 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Based on her careful observation, Maria Sibylla Merian systematically illustrated different stages of the insect’s development: young brown caterpillar and mature green caterpillar, spun cocoon and glistening pupa, and, hovering above, an adult moth. Merian took special care to describe each element in vivid detail, using vibrant and varied colors of green to capture the individual leaves of the tree as early beginnings of a scientific drawing.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re here at the Getty Center, looking at a watercolor by Maria Sibylla Merian, a remarkable artist, but also someone who is remarkable for her scientific discoveries. She was rather obsessed with metamorphosis.

Dr. Stephanie Schrader: [0:22] She would collect caterpillars and bring them home and raise them in boxes. So she’s raising children and raising insects at the same time, all the while trying to do all the standard things you do as a mother and a wife.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] As a mother, she’s feeding her children, but she’s also feeding the insects that she’s keeping. She has to go out into the garden, out into the fields around her, and find the exact plants that the caterpillars would eat.

Dr. Schrader: [0:49] You might first notice this dynamic tree branch dominating the composition, with these luscious greens. Then around this, as if it’s teeming with life, you have the male emperor moth, with its wings spread to suggest flight.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] He’s pretty spectacular.

Dr. Schrader: [1:08] Oh, he is spectacular. Purple, and yellow, and these black circles. Below, you see the cocoon. You see what she referred to as a “date pit,” now we know it as a pupa. Remember, this is before there’s classification, before there are Latin names for these insects, before the complete understanding of the metamorphosis of insects was understood.

[1:32] Then you see the juvenile nymph. The mature caterpillar you see climbing down that branch. It’s this wonderful green with black bands, yellow pearls on top of teeny black hairs, emerging from those yellow pearls.

[1:47] Notice the shadows. She’s trying to make this as lifelike as possible. She’s the first to think about this life cycle in relationship to the food source. Others weren’t showing the food source, and they weren’t making it in this beautiful color. That’s Merian, and that comes from the fact that she was trained as an artist, and her stepfather who taught her how to paint was a still life painter.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] Unlike previous images in natural history books, where we might see moths spread out perfectly for the purpose of categorizing different types of moths, or different types of caterpillars, and they might be separated on different pages of a book, here, Merian’s bringing everything together into this natural drama that seems to be unfolding before our eyes. So instead of something that seems like a lifeless specimen, we have something full of life.

Dr. Schrader: [2:40] She does away with the static tradition. She wants to show something pulsating with life. She kept a notebook and recorded all these things, and then she would use that notebook to make more finished compositions.

[2:53] She tells us how hard it was to find this moth, because remember, moths come out at night. She had to structure her whole life around when these insects were going to transform.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] It was a lot of trial and error, but every caterpillar that she documented in her book is one that she raised through the entire life cycle. We’re talking about a moment in history where this life cycle was still quite mysterious.

Dr. Schrader: [3:21] They still believed that butterflies or moths spontaneously generated from piles of dung. Not only is she able to observe it, she’s able to depict it in an artful, beautiful way. Her whole book was made for gardeners and for art lovers. It wasn’t made for the scientific community.

[3:39] What I love about this image, is that she makes us slow down and reminds us to look.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] That was the age she lived in — let’s not rely on the ancient knowledge of Aristotle. Let’s go out and observe, and document, and really the beginnings of scientific observation.

Dr. Schrader: [3:57] That’s a reminder [of] what you’re going to find if you’re curious, and what you’re going to find if you don’t just read what’s in the books. Remember, she’s growing up in a very religious time. This was not science the way we think of science. This was God’s handiwork, and she was trying to understand and make sense of that handiwork.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] This idea of natural theology, that looking at nature would reveal God’s handiwork. But also the idea that we could see religious ideas in nature. The transformation of the butterfly could stand for the idea of the Resurrection. Her approach is less along those religious lines, and more toward a kind of modern, scientific idea of observation.

Dr. Schrader: [4:38] Yes, although I do think…We have categories now. We have art here. We have science here. We have religion in a whole other sphere. As a holistic view of nature, with the food source as well as the whole metamorphosis, it actually is much like her life.

[4:55] She was the mother and the artist. She was the adventurer and the documenter. She had all of these things that weren’t contradictions to her.

Dr. Harris: [5:04] The idea of the interconnectedness of things, and that’s what she gives us here.

[5:08] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Stephanie Schrader and Dr. Beth Harris, "Maria Sybilla Merian’s Metamorphosis of a Small Emperor Moth on a Damson Plum
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, May 17, 2023, accessed April 24, 2024,