A brand new, sumptuous picture book biography is my focus today. Its illustrations refreshed my winter-weary eyes, even as its crystal-clear language movingly revealed an exceptional woman, from girlhood through old age. And, whether by remarkable coincidence or fate, my writing now about Joyce Sidman’s The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (2018) seems meant to be. Let me explain.
Just last month, I went overnight from groaning at (fake) worms to gasping at beautifully pictured butterflies. Women scientists—almost unheard of in the 17th and early 18th centuries—were responsible for both reactions! The worms were being studied by a character in an 18th-century English play, Susanna Centlivre’s The Bassett Table, being produced by a local theater company I saw several performances of this funny play, as scientific Lady Valeria’s disapproving father was acted by my husband, Don Larsson. His shock and disgust when “daughter” Valeria thrusts a six-foot long tape worm at him evoked laughter in the audience but also a few sympathetic groans.
Centlivre’s comedy was written and first performed in 1705. That was also the year that German artist and scientific pioneer Maria Merian published her most famous work, a study of South American insects and amphibians. Maria actually lived the life and achieved goals dreamed about by fictional Lady Valeria! How could I not focus today on Maria’s life story—particularly since its author is the admirable poet Joyce Sidman, whose award-winning work I have long enjoyed. (For this Earth Day, I posted an article that in part discusses two of Sidman’s books of luminous nature poetry.) I had The Girl Who Drew Butterflies on my library call list, not knowing more than its title, even before my husband began rehearsals for that play.
In this book’s twelve chapters, Sidman explains what life was like in 17th –century Germany for middle class women. Unlike aristocratic Lady Valeria, Maria Merian had to contribute to her household’s income and even support herself late in life. She was the daughter of a printmaker, then step-daughter of one working painter and wife to another painter. While women in such households might perform tasks relating to art, they were not trained formally or accepted as professional artists. Similarly, few people back then believed that women had the brains or temperament to study the natural world. In fact, women who showed interest or special knowledge of nature might be burned as witches! Most insects, even the butterflies which were Maria’s special love, were considered “evil vermin.” Marriage and motherhood were the roles she was expected to fulfill—and she did.
But Maria also continued to observe, think about, draw, and paint insects as they developed in their own habitats. She later shared these interests with her daughters, who painted their own still-lifes. Their achievements, though, were of a lesser order than Maria’s. Documenting the origin, metamorphosis, and particular sites of different butterfly species was her signal contribution to science and art history. Seventy-five years before the word “entomologist” came into usage, Maria Merian’s nature studies were praised by science-minded members of the British Royal Society. Her colorful and detailed engravings of creatures depicted in their shared natural setting later influenced the prominent naturalist-artist John Jacques Audubon.
Sidman supplements the narrative chapters with nine sidebars on such apt topics as copper engraving, witch hunts, religion in the 1600s, and the differences between moths and butterflies. The sidebar on slavery in Surinam, the South American Dutch colony to which Maria daringly journeyed to observe exotic insects and amphibians, is especially important for the young readers in grades 5 and up who might pleasurably explore this book. This sidebar provides needed historical information and context for how unusual for that time Maria’s awareness of slave women’s suffering and lore was. Her views are recorded in her 1705 book.
Readers old as well as young will appreciate the brief poems Sidman offers at the beginning of chapters, all titled sequentially by the stages in butterfly development. Each poem is illustrated with a full-color photograph of a stage, while the poem itself cunningly applies not just to the pictured insect but to the chapter’s comparable stage in Maria’s life. So, the caterpillar which has again shed its skin and teen-aged Maria about to be married are both eloquently described by this verse: “I grow quickly, shedding skin after skin, twisting, shifting to match my surroundings.” In the chapter titled “Flight,” an airborne butterfly and Maria’s bold trip to faraway Surinam are both captured in these words: “How vast the swirling dome of the sky! How strong the wings I have grown for myself!”
Sidman took most of the sharp-eyed photographs here herself. I particularly enjoyed the one of her young neighbor eyeballing a butterfly, shot in a Twin Cities suburb not far from the one where I live! The bulk of the book’s gorgeous illustrations, though, are reproductions of Maria Merian’s own detailed, beautifully-colored images of flowers, plants, insects, and other creatures. They are a delight, extending to the interior covers of this volume, which is a joy to hold. The maps and contemporaneous engravings of city scenes related to Maria’s life, along with back matter such as a timeline and an introductory butterfly glossary, are further reasons to recommend this thoughtfully designed and creatively executed biography.
Sidman’s book is more kid-friendly than another recent work about the artist-naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist/Scientist/Adventurer (2018), written by Sarah B. Pomeroy and Jeyaraney Kathirithamby. That richly-illustrated book published by the J. Paul Getty Museum on heavy paper stock does, though, contain some information not in The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: sidebars on 17th –century women painters and on Maria’s daughters’ art. It also has a chapter about how Maria’s work and reputation survived and grew, thanks in part to her daughter Dorothea. Those are some reasons for a further look at this art history-oriented book.
Early elementary-aged readers might relish Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian (2010), with clear, simple text written by Margarita Engle and attractive pictures drawn by Julie Paschkis. For older readers eager to learn more, I recommend Kim Todd’s Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (2007). I have just begun to peruse this award-winning work aimed at adults, breath-taking in scope and insights into 17th -century women’s lives and the implications of scientific knowledge. I also appreciate how Todd includes her own experiences and thoughts as she travelled to research this biography. Nature and poetry lovers of all ages would find much to enjoy in Joyce Sidman’s other books, listed at her website.
Finally, when it comes to picturing butterflies, I would be remiss in not mentioning for older readers the graphic novel Ruins (2015) by author/illustrator Peter Kuper. (I reviewed one of his earlier books here.) Alternating the story of monarch butterfly migration with the journey of a married couple, this 300 page novel in 2016 won an Eisner Award and was also a Book List Top Ten Graphic Novel.
Play photograph by Scott Pakudaitis