Beautiful Things – The Insects of Surinam.

This is the first of a series of occasional postings regarding beautiful things I have come across whilst doing the part of my job that involves fetching books for readers.  Beautiful Things is a record of accidental discovery.

The Insects of Surinam is a volume of sixty plates by Maria Merian.  Published in 1705 the illustrations and descriptions concern the metamorphosis in the life cycle of insects. The Latin title translates ‘The metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam, in which the caterpillars and worms of Surinam, with all their transformations, are drawn and described from life, each of them placed on the plants, flowers and fruits on which they were found’.

The Guava

The Guava

In 2004, Special Collections displayed the volume as part of an exhibition on natural history; the accompanying guide states:

Merian travelled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) at the age of 52 in 1699, financing her trip by selling her paintings and collection of insects, in order to study insects in their natural habitats.  She remained there for 21 months, breeding, collecting and sketching insects.  Merian financed the publication of her subsequent book on insects of Surinam herself, losing money on the venture.  Two versions were published, one with the text in Latin (shown here), one in Dutch.  Merian engraved three of the 60 plates, a team of three engravers the rest.  They depict about 90 studies of caterpillars evolving into insects, mostly life-size, and include the names and local uses of plants.

The engravings are the first extensive visual record of South American plants and insects and the first record at all of many of the subjects.  Later editions add 12 more plates based on the drawings of Merian’s elder daughter, Johanna.

The Casava root with a piece of bread.

The Cassava root with a piece of bread.

The work was also exhibited in 2008 at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the guide noted:

‘Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars’ food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian’s work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.’

The J. Paul Getty Museum – Los Angeles

The Casava or Manihot.

The Cassava or Manihot.

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.


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