Maria Merian's Butterflies closes at the Queen's Gallery in London tomorrow. This might seem like an odd time to be doing a review however I only visited for the first time on Friday - having been meaning to visit for months!
Then it occurred to me that very many people will not have had a chance to view it even if they had read a more timely review.
Consequently this review is going to focus very much on what I learned about her work while viewing the images on display - and reading the very informative labels which were well up to the normal standard of the Queens Gallery. It covers:
I've started to update my page About Maria Sibylla Merian with findings from the exhibition and will continue to do in the next few days. You can find out more about her and where you can see images of her artwork online on this page.
Royal Collection: What's different about these images?
The exhibition is based on the book and the images on vellum which were acquired by King George III in the latter part of the 17th century. Before joining the Royal Collection they had previously been in the ownership of the botanist John Hill and the physician Richard Mead.
The book on display (in the picture above) is a rare counterproof edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname) which she produced and published in 1705 following her trip to Surinam. This edition was also hand coloured by Merian and her daughters making it both rare and very special.
The images on the walls are all watercolour paintings on vellum - hand painted by Merian. However the painting comes on top of a counterproof copy of an engraving used for the various insects e.g. the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly.
It seems likely that she was using only part-finished engravings for the paintings on vellum. This means the insects are as precise as Merian wanted but that the remainder of the painting is much more like conventional watercolour paintings on vellum.
"Counterproof" means that it is a reversed print taken from a fresh "proof by contact" impression. It's usually used to study the state of the engraved plate. However the other consequence is that:
It's possible that she may have been trying out different compositions of plants and additional insects for the engravings.
The exhibition highlighted (see below) that not all the insects were in the same place on the engraving printed in the book when compared to the watercolour painting on vellum. There was scope to change the position.
Maria Merian's working practices
Light Etching on Vellum
You can also see the brown ink from the counterpoint 'pressed' etching on the vellum. The example on the right provides a particularly clear example.
The watercolour has been added on top but you can still clearly see the etching marks. I assume this is what she wanted and chose the paint she used accordingly.
What I find interesting about these images is that there aren't more people using this technique today to create both original one-off paintings and engravings which can be produced as limited editions of fine art prints.
Katherine Tyrrell writes about botanical art and artists and has followers all over the world.
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