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Poetry inspired by Maria Sibylla Merian 

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NOVEMBER 08, 2019

Curation over landscape

And likewise taxonomy, ecology


Separation’s only lapse, a cluster of rippling shadows

Which seal the world away

In snowy backdrop


Lit by entomological fixtures

Proportions exaggerated to feed exoticism for sale

Purchased in a ballroom enterprise composed of “family friends.”


Would it be careless to study a living room

With a diorama of just the furniture but not the marble

Floors and gold spiral staircase?


Pleasure stirs sterile smells and substantive maybes into the pot.



About Maria Sibylla Merian:

Maria Sibylla Merian was a 17th-century Dutch German botanical and entomological artist. While many of her watercolor depictions of nature are widely appreciated as some of the greatest botanical art in history, her most famous paintings are from her book “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.” This book is known as the first to document the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies and moths. The paintings were so respected that after Merian’s death, Carl Linnaeus used her artwork in his book “Systema Naturae.”

Merian studied the process of metamorphosis in Surname, what was then a Dutch colony, after spending her young adulthood in the Netherlands. Born in Germany in 1647, Merian married and moved to the Netherlands with her husband in her early 20s, where she stayed until leaving to join a religious colony named after Jean de Labadie in 1685. Along with her two daughters, Merian lived communally with other Labadists until financial crises in the group forced the women to leave. They stayed in Amsterdam for several years, where together they developed a business painting and selling paintings of nature until moving to Suriname.

Undoubtedly, Merian’s biography, as well as body of work, are extraordinary. Leaving her husband, starting a business, traveling alone and gaining recognition from the era’s dominant male scholars was no easy feat for a 17th-century woman. But in praising the artist’s accomplishments, we cannot separate Merian from the context in which she lived and operated. It was in the context of the Scientific Revolution, colonization of the Americas and an upper-class rank that Merian was able to produce her body of work.

At the time, Europeans often participated in collecting specimens from the natural world. They would hoard everything from rocks to birds in cabinets for display. Specimens from landscapes outside of Europe were labeled as “exotic” and consequently given a quality of otherness, which mirrors the basis of thinking used to categorize people and justify colonization. These specimens were severed from their landscapes and attached to their original lives maybe with a few facts, but not much more.

I feel that this larger context at once has purposeful absence and a haunting presence in Merian’s work. The absence of background and the isolation of each piece form a sort of curation of specimens rather than a cohesive landscape. Each insect or plant seems to be perfectly poised for a collector of so-called exotic species to enjoy. 

Contact Hannah Frances Johansson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hanfrancesjohan.

NOVEMBER 08, 2019

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