A leafy plant with a caterpillar on the stem and a moth hovering nearby. Below it sit larvae and a cocoon.

Metamorphosis of a Small Emperor Moth on a Damson Plum, plate 13 of the Caterpillar Book, 1679, Maria Sibylla Merian. Translucent and opaque watercolor over counterproof print on parchment, 7 3/8 × 5 7/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2020.10

Before embarking on a life of travel and adventure researching the flora and fauna of the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America, Maria Sibylla Merian explored gardens in her hometown of Frankfurt, Germany. Encouraged by her artist-stepfather to include flies and butterflies in the floral paintings she made as a girl, Merian became curious about how insects behaved in nature. To find out more, she collected hundreds of caterpillars and plants from local gardens. She raised bugs at home in wooden boxes, and carefully observed and meticulously depicted their life cycles. After marrying and starting a family, Merian settled in Nuremberg, where she taught young girls to embroider and paint flowers.

While raising two daughters and teaching her “company of maidens,” she continued her fieldwork, carefully documenting caterpillars and their transformations. She published the first volume of her Caterpillar Book in 1679. Her fifty precise illustrations accompanied by short explanations clarified the little-understood process of metamorphosis from egg to pupa to caterpillar and then to moth or butterfly.

Aware of Merian’s important contributions to art and science, the Getty Museum was keen to acquire her depiction of insect metamorphosis alongside a blossoming plum tree. This colorful illustration entwines the life cycle of the emperor moth with its food source. Leaves curl and overlap as a mature caterpillar crawls down the branch past the blossoms. With cast shadows she suggests sunlight pouring in from the left, illuminating the silk casing of the cocoon, the pupa, and the freshly emerged caterpillar at the bottom of the sheet. Placed on a sharp diagonal near the leafy branch, the purple and yellow moth with black markings appears suspended in air.  Merian raises the standards of scientific illustration by presenting the various stages of the emperor moth’s life in a lively and decorative manner. She makes the complicated process of metamorphosis both easier to understand and delightful to observe.

Merian’s description of this “beautiful green caterpillar” and its various stages of life helped disprove the commonly held belief that moths generated spontaneously from heaps of rotten fruit and old meat. Applying a rare artistic talent to unusually keen observations, she underscores the interrelationship of plants and insects. Barred from a university education and the privilege of using oil paint because of her gender, Merian nevertheless laid the groundwork for modern entomology and ecology. In the words of one—perhaps slightly patronizing—male contemporary: “she could render flowers, fruits, birds, and especially little worms, flies, gnats, spiders and their transformation, and she did this while maintaining a tidy household.”

A tree branch with small white flowers against a blue sky

Spring is here! A pluot tree blooms near the author’s home. Photo by Lindsey Mayer-Beug

With its mix of verdant hues and pastel colors, Merian’s watercolor heralds the coming of spring and offers an important reminder to step outside and experience new life emerging. Notice all the fruit trees beginning to bloom right now. Pay attention to the green shoots that the rain and sun have spurred into growth. Take pleasure in wildflowers that bring ethereal beauty to familiar walks and hikes. Stop and observe the various shades of pink, white, and yellow petals, many of which have remarkable striations. Maybe even a fuzzy caterpillar can be found inching its way down a branch to devour tender green leaves. While patiently searching for evidence of insect metamorphosis, remember what Merian’s illustration makes beautifully clear: nature’s transformative powers are at work this spring, and these wonders are worthy of contemplation.

Learn more about Merian from these two publications:

Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer and Insects & Flowers