|European Watercolors — Maria Sybilla Merian - Parrot Tulip|
|Maria Sybilla Merian - Parrot Tulip
Medium: Watercolor on vellum with gold fillet
Dimensions: Vellum size: 13” x 10 ¼”; Framed size: 24” x 20 ½”
Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) was born into a century of unparalleled change. The Thirty Years' War, that had ravaged Europe since 1618, ended the year after her birth and the resulting Treaty of Westphalia brought about new religious freedoms that had been sought since Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31, 1518, thus starting the Reformation. The new era of Enlightenment allowed science to blossom and it was within this atmosphere that such figures as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was able to define the laws of gravity and George Buffon (1707-1788) advance the evolution debate by exploring the theory that all living creatures are derived from one species that has changed over time. The great English poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), summed up this spirit of discovery perfectly, writing: "Know then thyself; presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is man."
With the new age of discovery, science more than ever before, came to depend upon the artist's skill in illustration. In George Cuvier's 1832 report on Jean-Baptiste Bourgery's and N.-M Jacob's book L'Anatomie Elémentaire, made to the Paris Académie des Sciences, he wrote: "One can say that without the Art of Drawing, natural history and anatomy, such as they exist today, would have been impossible." Maria Sibylla Merian possessed the remarkable ability to master both the faculty of science and the art of illustration.
Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt, Germany on April 2, 1647 to the famous publisher, Matthias Merian, and his second wife, Johanna Sibylla Heim. At the age of three her father died and one year later her mother married the Dutch painter, Jacob Marrell, also a resident of Frankfurt. He provided her with an early artistic training and also introduced her to natural history illustration. However, she was also acquainted with the work of other painters, such as Nicolas Robert (1614-1685), painter to the French Crown and a significant contributor to the Velins du Roi. As can be seen in the spectacular watercolors here presented, her skill was immeasurable and in execution somewhat influenced by the work of not only her father but also Robert.
Merian not only concentrated upon the beauty of flowers but in the majority of her compositions included insects, an unusual consideration for a woman of the seventeenth century. However, in her publication, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, Maria Sibylla Merian was to confess: "From my youth onward I have been concerned with the study of insects. I began with silkworms in my native city, Frankfurt am Main; then I observed the far more beautiful butterflies and moths that developed from other kinds of caterpillars." Her ability to study certain caterpillars was aided by Marrell's brother, a silk trader in Frankfurt.
While her fascination was most certainly real, for she was to travel with her daughter Dorothea to Surinam in 1699 specifically to record the insect life of the Dutch colony, it also provided her with a modicum of financial security. The excitement of discovery extended beyond the confines of scientists to that of the collector and his cabinet of curiosities. Eager to acquire the latest discoveries, these wealthy collectors employed artists to record their collections. Maria was acquainted with the Amsterdam collectors Nicholas and Jonas Witsen, and Livinus Vincent, the first of whom ensured that she received financial assistance from the city for her perilous journey to Surinam. She undoubtedly completed commissions for them and others.
The present selection reflects the typical combination of objects found in such cabinets and compositions. In all but one of the Merian works here offered, the tulip is placed at the center of the arrangement, reflecting its relative rarity and high value during the seventeenth century. Indeed, the demand for tulips reached such a height that they became prized items in collections of exotic treasures. Bulbs were sold at auction and their blooms illustrated in tulip albums. While the price of these eventually reached unsustainable prices and caused the catastrophic crash of 1637, collectors still prized the tulip for its unpredictability. The 'broken' flowers, here pictured, were more highly prized than the plain-colored and yet out of one thousand only one or two would appear 'feathered' or 'flamed'. The secret of how this happened was not fully understood until the 1920s when it was discovered that a virus caused the change.
Thus, Maria Sibylla Merian's work referenced the past, and the tulip mania of the 1630's, while her spirit reflected the present and the future. As a person she was remarkable, but as a woman her achievements were unparalleled. The opportunities afforded her by both her stepfather, Jacob Marrell, and her patrons gave her the tools for her personal advancement, but her intellect was all her own and is imbued within her works.