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Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the…

Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (edition 2007)

by Kim Todd (Author)

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139886,313 (3.82)7
Title:Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis
Authors:Kim Todd (Author)
Info:Mariner Books (2007), Edition: 1, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd



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I never intended to read this biography... I just picked it up for the pictures.  Now I *really* want to see Merian's original colored drawings.  Well, at least there are more avl. to view online than there were when I first added this to my to-read lists.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
Years ago, I bought a copy of this book for my insect-obsessed sister, then promptly forgot all about it. Then, recently, I heard about Maria Sibylla Merian again and decided i needed to know more about her. I ended up rediscovering this book and putting it on my library hold list. It's actually part of what inspired my new Women in Science phase -- after that I looked up several other biographies of female scientists and added them to my to-read list as well.

Merian's topic was metamorphosis, at a time when spontaneous generation was just starting to be disproven. In fact, Merian's work contributed to the refutations in a significant way. She was interested in metamorphosis in general, but in caterpillars in particular. Her medium was watercolor. (At a time when she was actually barred from painting in oils by artists guilds because she was a woman.) She raised hundreds of caterpillars, hoping to watch and document their transformations. Friends brought and sent her caterpillars. She sought permission to explore nearby gardens in the hopes of finding new caterpillars. She kept careful notes of dates, observations, sketches. And then she published. Books of watercolors with caterpillar/pupa/moth or butterfly on the same page. Perhaps more importantly, on their host plant. At first, she represents this work lightly -- telling stories designed to amuse of she and her friends in their fine dresses on country strolls, scrambling after insects. Suggesting her watercolors be used as inspirational patterns for embroidery. But she must have taken her work more seriously as time went on, because at the turn of the 18th century, she and her daughter sailed to Surinam to document metamorphosis there, quite possibly the first cross-Atlantic expedition for purely scientific reasons.

I could go on and on and on, but I'm going to try to rein it in. Things I want to particularly note: Merian was a contemporary of Leeuwenhoek! I think right now I am in love with turn of the 18th century Amsterdam. The hobbyist scientists. The salons full of new ideas. The crazy collections of artifacts and the birth of museums. Also, a chapter in the end about her enduring influence discusses how her work was held to some higher standard: she was dismissed entirely for decades because she was wrong about a few things, despite the significance of her gaffes being largely in line with those of her contemporaries. (Always my favorite example: Leeuwenhoek was sure that the entire germ for a new being came from the sperm. The egg was just a house to be filled.)

Also, I need to acknowledge that the author admits a dearth of primary sources about Merian's inner world. Very well recorded is what she saw, what she painted. But very little record remains of what she felt. About anything, ever. Todd is pretty transparent about this, and I thought she did an admirable job of both filling in the blanks and also directly stating what she is basing these speculations on as she makes them.

Recommended to those interested in insects, women in science and/or art, ecology, or turn of the 18th century worldviews. ( )
1 vote greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
I really enjoyed this biography of 17th c. artist & naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. The combination of her fascinating story & Todd's elegant prose makes for a great reading experience. I saw a copy of Merian's "Metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam" among the rare manuscripts on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino in May. Her detailed drawings are amazing. In 1699 Merian set off from Amsterdam with her daughter Dorothea to travel to the Dutch colony of Surinam, where they stayed for 2 years while Maria studied & drew life in the tropical forest. She was one of the first European naturalists to recognize that life was different in the canopy than on the ground, & that it was important to study, for example, "what a caterpillar ate and what might eat it, the relationship of an organism to its environment" instead of just marking one species off from another. She thought in terms of ecology more than a century and a half before German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term "oecologie" in 1866. This link, thanks to another Goodreads reviewer, provides several good examples of Merian's art: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/merian/ ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
This is a biography of Maria Sibylla Merian, late 17th – early 18th century German artist-scientist, illustrator of caterpillars, notable because she placed them in ecological context, observing and recording host plants and life cycles. Her father was a publisher and engraver. Her stepfather was a painter. Her art began with osmosis of family skills and stylized sketches for embroidery. Not much is known about her inner life, aside from a negative comment about her marriage (to an apprentice of her stepfather), which she exited with her two daughters, to a religious community near Amsterdam. During her marriage, she taught embroidery and painting to the daughters of elite families (and she remained in affectionate correspondence with former students for years afterward), and published a book about caterpillars. After the religious community folded, she and her daughters, also artists, set up shop in Amsterdam. (Fun connection: One daughter’s daughter married mathematician Leonhard Euler.) She visited collectors of exotic specimens, and eventually convinced the city to fund her for two years in the colony of Suriname, the source of her most famous book, The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname.

The biography is satisfying in detail about documented events, and not to be faulted for the absence of personal information that simply doesn’t exist. I wanted more illustrations, but suppose there are cost and copyright issues. Its strength is in the depiction of science three centuries ago, and how one woman navigated the social and intellectual constraints.

(read 9 June 2013)
  qebo | Aug 18, 2013 |
Disappointingly few examples of Merian's illustrations. Just half a dozen color plates total. ( )
  2wonderY | Apr 9, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156032996, Paperback)

Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:10 -0400)

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"Before Darwin, before Audubon, there was Merian. An artist turned naturalist known for her botanical illustrations, she was born just sixteen years after Galileo proclaimed that the earth orbited the sun. But at the age of fifty she sailed from Europe to the New World on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis - an unheard-of journey for any naturalist at that time, much less a woman. When she returned she produced a book that secured her reputation, only to have it savaged in the nineteenth century by scientists who disdained the work of "amateurs."" "Chrysalis takes us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian's insights fuel a new branch of biology. Kim Todd brings to life a seventeenth-century woman whose boldness and vision would still be exceptional today."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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