A MAGNIFICENT WATERCOLOUR ON VELLUM (15 x 11 inches), unfinished, without an image of the moth itself, and the bunch of grapes it was probably resting on, but incorporating very distinctive elements of Merian's watercolours, including the grape vine with extremely detailed vine leaves, curling tendrils, as backdrop for exact and scientific representations of the Elephant Hawk-Moth caterpillar, larvae, and pupae, as found in Merian's "Studienbuch", and published as plate 23 of the second volume of the "Raupenbuch", and plate 73 of the "Erucarum", surrounded by a border of black ink, possibly painted by one of Merian's wealthier paying pupils, under her close supervision.
Provenance: ?early misattribution to Leonard van Heil "1650", artist and architect, on the verso; with the small oval collector's mark in red of Charles Gasc (Lugt 543) lower right, his collection included a number of very fine old master drawings sold at auction in Paris in 1860, and now found in many of the world's leading art collections, such at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, he was a Sous-Prefet of the 2nd Empire; with the monogrammed collector's marks in pale blue of Auguste Schoy, Antwerp (1838-1885) (Lugt 64) lower right, professor at the Antwerp Academy, and author of a number of books on architecture and artists such as Rubens; with Sotheby's, July 8th, 2009, lot 50.
The Elephant Hawk-Moth is found throughout Britain and Ireland, and its range extends across Europe, Russia, and into China, the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, Japan and Korea. The adults are seen from May to July and the caterpillars from July to September, when they pupate. However in some parts of the Mediterranean and China the adults may be seen from April onwards, sometimes having two broods in a year.
Merian's study of caterpillars and butterflies and the plants that nourish them was "the work of her lifetime" (Wettengl, p.54), in that the preparation and publication of several parts and editions of the present work, commonly referred to as the "Raupenbuch", spanned her entire career. Merian herself in her "Studienbuch", now housed in St. Petersburg, Russia, records that she was raising silkworms and other insects by the time she was 13 in 1660. At the end of her life, she was immersed in preparing the third part of the "Raupenbuch" for publication.
Daughter of Swiss topographical artist Matthaus Merian, and Johanna Sybilla Heim, Merian had been raised in Germany by Heim and her stepfather, the artist Jacob Marrel. Her first and rarest work, the "Blumenbuch" was issued in 3 parts, each consisting of 12 plates, in 1675, 1677 and 1680, respectively. In 1680 a composite issue appeared of all three parts, newly entitled "Neues Blumenbuch", with two leaves of text containing an introduction and a register of plant names. While in Germany she married the Nuremberg painter Johann Andreas Graff, and published the first two parts of the "Raupenbuch" .
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 part, 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).
The exquisite plates show Lepidoptera in the various states of the metamorphosis, depicted simultaneously with 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).
Painted on a very expensive sheet of vellum, with very faint underlying pencil marks beneath the occasionally tentative brush strokes, incorporating exact likenesses of nearly all of the images composing Merian's study of the life cycle of the Deilephila elpenor (as found in her "Studienbuch", now in St. Petersburg), on a background very like that which appears in plates 34 and 47 of her "Metamorphosis" of 1704, but left unfinished, this beautiful and delicate painting was probably produced under the close instruction and supervision of Merian by one of her wealthier students. As an involved and interested teacher her influence in its creation is very apparent.
In 1699, following Merian's separation from her husband, Merian travelled with her daughters to Dutch Surinam: "expressly to study and record the insect life of the tropics... this voyage was not only unusual for a woman in her position, it was unprecedented for any European naturalist to venture such an independently financed and organized expedition. In Surinam she worked for almost two years collecting, observing and painting over ninety species of animals and sixty or more species of plants" (Etheridge, page 2).
Merian returned from Surinam in 1701, and in late 1704, she published her magnum opus, "Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium" in Dutch. In 1713 she published a revised Dutch edition in her own more succinct translation, of the "Raupenbuch", as "Der Rupsen", with part III delayed by her poor health, appearing posthumously in 1717. As early as 1705, Merian had projected publication of the work in Latin as well as Dutch, but this first Latin edition did not appear until after her death, under the imprint of the Amsterdam publisher Johannes Oosterwijck, who had acquired all the plates and texts of Merian's works from Dorothea at the time of her move to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1717. Landwehr, Studies in Dutch Books wth Coloured Plates, 135; Wettengle, ed. Maria Sibylla Merian... artist and naturalist [Frankfurt, Hatje, 1998], no. 155, and pp. 53-65. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/merian/. Catalogued by Kate Hunter