Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717), ‘Cerius Ex Curacao spciis variae’ (Two Cereus Cactuses)
Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717)
‘Cerius Ex Curacao spciis variae’ (Two Cereus Cactuses)
Verso of frame contains a window with an inscription from Agnes Block:
‘Cerius Ex Curacao spciis variae . 1687./d 4 of 5 hoeckige met grote dorens op de canten/ &ditto 6 & 7 cantig ront boven op de top ryug/ syn diversage soorten by myn Agmita Block [Cereus from Curacao, several species. 1687. The 4-or 5-angular one with big thorns on the edge, and the 6-or7- angular one round, with shaggy top, from a variety of species with me, Agnita Block]
Watercolor on vellum 1687
Frame size 23 1/2 x 19 1/4 in
Paper size 14 x 9 3/4 in
The attribution to Maria Merian has been confirmed by Sam Segal. A letter from Segal is found on the verso of the framed watercolor. Segal writes: “Agnes (or Agnita) Block was born in Amsterdam in 1629, and died 1704. She was married with the Sybrant de Flines, with whom she resided in the country seat Vijverhof at Loenen (between Amsterdam and Utrecht), where she had a famous collection of exotic plants in the garden. She ordered the most important watercolor artists in Holland to paint the plants and flowers from her collection. Among these artists were Maria Sibylla Merian and her daughter Johanna Helena Herlot, Herman Hestenburgh, Herman Saftleven, and Pieter and Alida Withoos. Her annotations are often found on the reverse of the drawings, which have spread all over the world. Several are, for example, in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. An inventory lits of the collection, which was sold to Valerius Rover in Delft, has survived, as well as part of her correspondence.”
Maria Sibylla Merian’s paintings reflect the classic combination of objects found in a cabinet of curiosities. Eager to acquire the latest discoveries, wealthy collectors employed artists to record their rare cabinet collections. In several of 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. The demand for tulips reached such a height that they became prized items in collections of exotic treasures. The ‘broken’ flowers 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.
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. 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.”
Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt, Germany on April 2, 1647, to the famous publisher, Matthias Merian (1593-1650), 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 (1613-1681), also a resident of Frankfurt. He provided her with early artistic training and introduced her to natural history illustration. At the age of eighteen, Maria Sibylla married Johann Graffe, a former apprentice of her stepfather, and moved to Nuremberg. She gave birth to two daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria, and during this time painted watercolors on vellum for sale. Apart from the work of her stepfather, Merian 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. Her skill was immeasurable and in execution somewhat influenced by the work of not only her stepfather but also Robert.
In 1685, Maria Sibylla left her husband and with her daughters and mother joined a spiritual community established by the Labadist sect. After five years, she withdrew from the commune and moved to Amsterdam. Fourteen years later she embarked, with her daughter Dorothea, upon a voyage to Surinam (now Guyana) to record the natural life of the Dutch colony.