Kate Hunter's brilliant essay about Merian Sibylla Merian and some strong prices at Christies today - June 8, 2011

When rarity is combined with beauty and historical significance then astonishing things can happen.

Today at Christie’s in London the rarest published work of Dutch botanical artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), made an astounding $924,000 including premium.

Merian’s “Blumenbuch”, with 36 engraved plates, and originally published in three small fascicles in Nuremberg, by Johann Andreas Graff (1675-1677-1680) is so rare that there are no other extant auction records with which to sensibly compare it. Only five copies of individual fascicules are known to survive in Vienna, Bern and Nuremberg. And this copy was no longer bound, each plate and the text leaves having been cropped to the plate mark and mounted on coloured paper. Only six copies of the later collected edition “Neues Blumenbuch” (1680) are known, and that has only appeared once at auction in the last 25 years.

Maria Sibylla was the daughter of the well-known Swiss engraver and publisher Matthaus Merian, and when her widowed mother married the flower painter Jacob Marrel whose student Johann Graff of Nuremberg became her husband, nature combined with nurture to produce in Maria Sibylla an artist of great distinction, and an intrepid observer of natural history.

Indefatigably fascinated by insects and the plants on which they lived Merian was the first artist to emphasize the life cycles and interactions of her subjects, from the first part of her “Raupenbuch”, published in Nuremberg in 1679, to her magnum opus “Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium” in 1705. Merian's work on caterpillars is a product of her remarkable synthesis of scientific and artistic genius. In her introduction to the 1679 edition of the first volume, she stated that preparation of the work had taken her five years: "the work of these years consisted of both scientific and artistic activity: Merian collected and raised insects, fed them with their host plants, observed them, described and drew their metamorphoses from egg to caterpillar and from pupa to butterfly imago. She then compiled her individual observations and studies in pictorial compositions" (Wettengle, pg. 103).

In order to make her published images as close to her original watercolours as possible Merian developed a technique of counterproofing: a method of "offset" printing whereby an image is printed from a freshly pulled print rather than from the copperplate. Counterproofs produced softer, lightly inked images with no platemarks, oriented in the same direction as her originals.

Merian had a predilection for this technique, and she is known to have used it for special and presentation copies of all her works, with additional hand-colouring, applied by Merian herself and her daughters. Surviving examples are extremely rare and are sought after by collectors.

One exquisite example is our DELUXE COPY of the first complete Latin edition of Merian's "Raupenbuch". “Erucarum ortus, alimentum et paradoxa metamorphosis”, published in Amsterdam by Joannes Oosterwijk in 1718. The book is in the librry here at 72nd and price at $250,000. With three parts in one volume, a frontispiece and 2 engraved sectional title-pages, and 149 exceptionally fine engraved plates in COUNTERPROOF. The plates ALL MAGNIFICENTLY COLOURED AND ALMOST CERTAINLY BY THE ARTIST AND HER DAUGHTERS, THE FRONTISPIECE AND ARMORIAL HEADPIECE HEIGHTENED IN GOLD. Beautifully bound in fine period gold-tolled red goatskin.

Another is the Macclesfield copy of Merian’s “Dissertatio de Generatione et Metamorphoibus insectorum Surinamensium”, published in  Amsterdam by J. Oosterwyk in 1719. Also in the library here at 72nd Street, and priced at $450,000. With a fine hand-colored engraved frontispiece heightened in gold after F. Ottens, the title-page lettering also HEIGHTENED IN GOLD and with hand-colored engraved vignette, a dedication to Balthazar Scott lettered in gilt and with hand-colored armorial vignette, and 72 hand-colored engraved plates, ALL COUNTERPROOF AND BEFORE LETTERS  “...of gorgeous butterflies flying around luxuriant flowering or fruiting plants" (Stearn). Bound in fine period diced calf, each cover elaborately decorated in gilt.

This is AN EXCEPTIONALLY FINE COPY of the second edition of the "Dissertatio.", in Latin, in its most desirable state, enlarged with 12 full-page plates not included in the first edition of 1705.

After a “metamorphosis” of her own, including a religious conversion and divorce from her dissolute husband, in June of 1699 Merian sailed with her daughter Dorothea to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America to study and paint the insect life there. They stayed for nearly two years and gained "an unprecedented glimpse of the teeming insect life of tropical South America, with gorgeous butterflies flying around luxuriant flowering or fruiting plants with large many-colored caterpillars crawling over the leaves. [The plates] have earned Maria Merian an honoured place in the history of tropical entomology as also in botanical illustrations" (Stearn). Sadly Merian died before the final twelve plates were published and this enlarged edition of the "Dissertatio" was published under the supervision of her daughter. 

This copy is from the celebrated library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, England, accumulated from the early 18th century by generations of of the Parker family, and sold (over successive sales) by Sothebys.

The exquisite plates show Lepidoptera in the various states of the metamorphosis, depicted simultaneously and the flowering plants upon which they feed (4 plates show five stages of a moth or butterfly alone, with no plant or only portions of plants). In incorporating their plant food into portraits of the insects, and showing them simultaneously, in their various states of development, her book broke radically with tradition. "In order to present the process of metamorphosis in the most vivid manner possible she merged the flower painting with the insect piece. To this end she simply reversed the conventional roles of central motif and secondary elements, so that the plants that now occupied central positions in  the compositions were employed primarily in support of what had formerly been subordinate to them" (op. cit., p.59). This copy is one of a handful of copies in which the engravings have been replaced with counterproofs. A splendid and rare example of Merian's work. Only one other copy with coloured counterproofs has appeared on the market in the past 25 years.

It is possible to see both of these magnificent books, individual plates in COUNTERPROOF and in their more usual published state, and ORIGINAL WATERCOLOUR DRAWINGS BY MERIAN, at our galleries in New York. For more complete descriptions and further information please contact Arader Galleries at Grahamarader@gmail.com.