“The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science,” by Joyce Sidman.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2018, 141 pages, Grades 5-7.
Sometimes people have made extraordinary discoveries with very little formal training. This lack of traditional education can cause people to focus on the created order and allow nature to guide their learning. Without preconceptions, these learners learn truths that are evident in the physical world.
For example, these people would never say that certain things were impossible to believe because traditional scientific understanding forbids it. Such narrow-mindedness once led people to believe the world was flat. But scientific advancements are usually made by people challenging entrenched beliefs. One such person was Maria Merian. Joyce Sidman tells the remarkable story of this brilliant woman in her highly acclaimed biography, “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science.”
In 1647, Maria Merian is born in Frankfurt, Germany. Her father was a printer and an engraver who ran a thriving publishing business. The complicated details for most published books involved the drawing of maps, animals and natural sciences. As a result, Marian’s father was a talented artist as well as a printer.
After his early death, Mrs. Merian remarried. Her new husband, Jacob Marrel, was a talented artist specializing in painting still life exhibits. He taught his talented step-daughter to draw and paint. Maria soon became skillful and a number of her paintings and watercolors were sold in Mr. Marrel’s studio.
But, because of her sex, Maria could not become a painting apprentice nor was she allowed to inherit his art studio. But her talent was so great that Jacob continued to teach Maria how to paint and draw. She became fascinated with the metamorphosis of insects and continuously studied them. Maria saw that they did not just spring up from dead meat or arise spontaneously as current science believed. She carefully observed a number of insects throughout their life cycles and understood that science must expand.
Maria didn’t even know it, but she had just become one of the world’s first ecologists. Her drive to understand the natural world of insects would lead her to several European countries. Maria’s brilliant drawings began captivating people.
While living in Holland, she reached a decision. No drawings had ever been done of the insects and butterflies of South America. Bravely, Maria boarded a ship destined for Dutch Guyana on the northern coast of South America. There, she would draw one of the most famous books ever created about butterflies. How did she do it?
What is the name of her great science and art book? Why is it so famous? Great artists like James Audubon were influenced by Maria’s scientific drawings and utilized many of her techniques. So famous were her watercolors that the Tsar of Russia purchased about 300 paintings for what would become part of Russia’s first art museum.
Why is Maria Merian such an inspiring person? To find out the answers to this and other questions, go to the library and check out this outstanding book: “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science” by Joyce Sidman.
Joyce Sidman was awarded the Robert Sibert Medal for 2019 for this book. This medal is given by the American Library Association to the outstanding information book of the year.
While the book is not light and fanciful, Sidman’s book is pleasant and enjoyable to read. She includes many of the beautiful drawings of Maria Merian. I hope you take the opportunity to encourage the intermediate grade school members of your family to read this excellent title. I liked the book a great deal. Enjoy!