Posts Tagged ‘Maria Sybilla Merian’

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Dear readers and friends,

Back from this year’s EC/ASECS (its 50th anniversary) at Gettysburg, I’m re-filled with enthusiasm for all things long 18th century, and return with new topics to think about, new perspectives, and old interests made new. Among the highlights for me of the evening and two days, was a guided visit during the long lunch on the first day through a Maria Sibylla Merian exhibit at the Schmucker Art Gallery on the Gettysburg campus, made richer by a lecture given later that afternoon by its professorial curator, Kay Etheridge. I heard that first morning intriguing papers on theater which attempted to get beyond the relics, remnants, remains in the form of verbal texts, costumes and setting to convey to us today what the experience of the theatrical representation might have been like in concrete breathing, noisy, living details. What are our aids today and were used in the 18th century to capture the fleeting presence performing in our memories.

Of course I was deeply engaged by the panel I chaired where we were once again immersed in Samuel Johnson (with a little bit of help from Boswell), and in the panel dedicated to Jacobitism where I gave my paper where themes of colonialism, migrancy, and religious-political conflicts emerged. But in this first of two blogs on this conference I will just write about the conference’s first panel on theater, the group trip to the Art Gallery and talks on Maria Sibylla Merian. As with last and a couple of years previous the views I offer and accounts of papers are necessarily partial since I could attend but one panel at a time, and my summary reports are imprecise, and omit much because my stenography is not what it once was.


A frontispiece from Bell’s British Theater

I was fascinated by the first panel on theatrical history (Friday morning, session 1, 9-10:15), chaired by Matthew Kinservik. One of the central questions coming out of Jane Wessel’s “Samuel Foote’s Strategic Ephemerality” was the problem that the theatrical experience disappears as it is acted. How do you know, study, understand performances before there were moving pictures (photography, movies, films, DVDs, video, digital YouTubes). Jane said professional enacted mimicry; that they looked in the scripts to enable imitation. Diaries, journals, and news descriptions constitute snapshots; you puzzle over what is meant by the familiar “character performed with additions.” Her paper attempted to get beyond the notion that ephemerality means loss: performances can escape censorship, others could not control what was immediately represented; you were as much going to see the performer as the work; the performed was the work. She showed evidence of Foote attempting to lure people using print. She read a footnote telling the reader which actors or actresses were imitating which.

Aparna Gollapudi’s “Theater in the Reading Closet: Bell’s Frontispieces” attempted to uncover what literally happened, live performances and audience response similarly. She discussed the texts, pictures, paratexts (like frontispieces) that circulated after a performance. The pictures do what they can to bring into people’s “closets” (rooms, homes) actual experiences of the stage. But they also are fanciful and illustrate what the audience might like to dream could epitomize the action or character but is in reality not possible for stage action. She showed a favorite print of a scene from Cibber’s Careless Husband which in the script occurred before the play began (two principals having sex); a moral play like Steele’s Conscious Lovers is accompanied by a picture which is not moral, but comic, leering, hinting at sexual availability. The frames outside the print have playful vignettes. Sometimes an actor is pictured in roles never played; substitutions like this abound as celebrity culture does its work. Illustrators were a kind of play critic, a reader of inner dreams of what did not happen.

Matthew’s “Charles Macklin’s Career as Theatre Manager” was about how the written records do not begin to record Macklin’s varied remarkable work for decades on the stage.

John Conde’s 1792 engraving of a painting of Macklin (from John Opie’s painting)

Macklin was not just an actor and playwright; if you pay attention to who is on the stage, who is involved in the acting, staging, presentation, you discover that for 30 years (1740-72) he acted, taught (he had in effect an acting school at a coffee house), deputy managed the most popular famous plays and actors (Garrick, Foote) too. He was one of those who could make up for the incompetence and parsimony of Fleetwood. He lectured on acting. As the novelty of some of what he did wore off, he behaved in less dignified ways, he found himself ridiculed. It seems one problem Macklin had was he angered people, another he had no money of his own to invest.He was a bankrupt in the 1750s, but went to Dublin and became a partner in the Crowe St Theater competing against Smock Alley. He got into disputes with Barry. In London his expertise in great acting roles (Shylock, Macbeth) was recognized by Colman. But his paper trail is through the courts: his Love a la Mode was so popular he declined to print it and would sue people for performing it.

In the general discussion afterwards people talked of those who could do shorthand and would take down quaker speeches and found that publishers and other people went after them to stop. As a stenographer who could once upon a time take down every word people said at a meeting, this interested me. I have experienced many different reactions to and uses of my ability to do this: early on, a lawyer I worked for used my work to his advantage in negotiations; later on as a graduate student in committee meetings I curbed myself rather than become too involved. They also talked of the terms of legal suits.

A second topic I started was about (I suppose) celebrity. I said that on face-book I noticed YouTubes put on of incidents in serial dramas that never occurred. I eventually learned these sorts of re-doings of bits of videos in order to change the scene (usually to make it more sentimental, more erotic, sometimes to make fun of something) are common. Many focus on a famous or admired star. No one but me appeared bothered about this. I suggested this sort of falsifying (as I see it) is the modern version of fanciful illustrations of theatrical scenes and actors in the 18th century.


Pear Blossom?

I wish I could do justice to the talk by the graduate student-curator who took a group of us through the exhibition — together with an art history professor. I came away with a slender catalogue paperback, Artful Nature and the Legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian, where the major pictures in the gallery are reproduced together with essays by the students on Merian’s life, science, the social norms of her class as well as the work of three other naturalists of Merian’s era.

From Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surianemensium (she went to Surinam)

I was able to take down some of what Prof. Kay Etheridge (biologist) told the whole conference in her talk in the afternoon. Merian was the daughter of an middle class artist, Matthäus Merian the Elder, and was highly educated. Her father died in 1650, and in 1651 her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, the flower and still life painter. Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. While he lived mostly in Holland, his pupil Abraham Mignon trained her. She married Marrel’s apprentice, and had two daughters, but eventually separated from him. She gave drawing lessons to the daughters of the wealthy and this gave her access to their gardens; she collected specimens, insects, studied botany, and devoting herself to her art and studies, she produced pattern books, and became a much respected scientific illustrator and then naturalist; she was among the first to study insects directly. Prof Etheridge went over (as far as she could) the steps Merian might have taken as she gained expertise. What was remarkable was she put the life cycles of insects together with plants. She wrote, engraved, published remarkable books, financing herself to go to Dutch Surinam. She talked to the indigenous people and to enslaved people and wrote about their desperation (how the women cared deeply for their children and would even kill them rather than see them grow up into an enslaved person); an indigenous woman accompanied her home. Her images tell ecological stories and Prof Fletcher showed how. We can see great cruelty in nature in some of what is observed in many of these illustrations.

Among the famous and wealthy who wrote or commemorated her: Alexander Humboldt named a flower after her; Hans Sloane collected her work; Tsar Peter; she was imitated by many major and minor scientific illustrators. Popularizers spread her work, e.g., Friedrich J. Bertuch in his picture books for children, attempting to teach a scientific way of seeing the world (published between 1780 and 1839); in English she cited Oliver Goldsmith. She talked about the 18th century naturalist, horticulturist, and illustrator Mark Catesby (1683-1749) best known for witty books based on his observations in the Carolinas, Florida and Bahama Islands. Catesby’s work is included in the exhibit.

The Gettysburg art gallery had another exhibit, the work of Andrew Ellis Johnson and Susanne Slavick dwelling on the present humanitarian crisis around the world; it consists of images, chosen poetry (a psalm by Wislawa Szymborska), essays (one by Suketu Mehta), commentaries on politics. historical incidents. I took home the catalogue for this too. It includes Warsan Shire’s


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten …

For the rest and about Shire, click here.

New butterfly named after Merian (Smithsonian Museum page)


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Giovanna Garzoni, Plate of Figs (1661-62)

Garzoni, A Hedgehog

giovanna garzonibeans
This sort of thing by Garzoni is thought to have symbolic hidden meanings … why the carnation?

High are the winds and equally high
My thoughts …

My sweet and lovely magnet lives in me …

The more I feel it deeply in my soul
Engraved and living in every part
Reigning as lord over this moral cloister …
Chiara Matraini (1515-1604?), as translated by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille

Dear friends and readers,

I also begin the new year with a second series of women artists (see first series). I had wanted to provide portraits (in both senses) of women artists before the European Renaissance, but the reality is while names are cited here and there from the classical or ancient world, there are no extant images or reliable information. By medieval Europe there is an illuminated manuscript tradition and two women emerge where there are extant images by them: Herrad of Landsburg became Abbess of Hohenburg near Strasbourg, and wrote and illustrated an encyclopedia, Hortus Deliciarum or Garden of Delights. There are poems in her hand; it’s a compendium of desirable knowledge for girls, with monumental allegorical figures in miniatures, dedicated to fellow nuns. And then there are the visions of Hildegard de Bingem, a few of stunning beauty, however knowledgeable (she wrote long treatises on trees, plants, animals, birds, fish, minerals, told of the life of her era), often troubling if you consider that many are visions she had.

What I want to cover are individuated images, secular, of this world. And this happens in the early modern period, rather astonishingly. Yes women did have a Renaissance and as the sudden cornucopia in contrast to what had been by early modern women artists and poets in Western Europe, this testifies to the importance of the Renaissance, it mattered.

This time we start in Italy and southern Europe with Giovanna Garzoni, Venetian, for the magnificence of her still lifes, the feeling of lusciousness, of a tremendous super-abundance of life’s energies from insects to flowers to fruits, and her meticulously studied herbarium. Giovanna is our second female botanist (Herrad would be first if Whitney Chadwick’s account in Women, Art and Society is accurate); they start a long tradition (read Ann B. Shteir’s Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860). Next up will be Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1625), whose career, life, painting and several sisters make her a painter of enormous interest.


While Garzoni painted religious, mythological, allegorical subjects and at least one portrait, she is renowned for her still lifes, this is probably her most reprinted image:

Giovanna Garzoni, Plate of White Beans (n.d.)

From Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art: This still life, a plate of beans, forms part of the works that the Medici family commissioned [Garzoni] to pain. The centered dish is piled high with ripe beans, which are arranged together with several long leaves, painted with so remarkable naturalism they bear the marks of decay. Hence The foreground is occupied by some kidney-shaped seeds, white and peeled or with streaky brown skin markings. The other element in the foreground, the red carnation, is rendered with the same degree of detail. The two beans in the left foreground, however, are merely sketched … [The picture] reveals much about Garzoni’s technique, which is based on sketchy contour lines hat are then delicately filled in with varnished colors. Finally, tempera was applied in fine parallel lines or stripes, with tiny short strokes and tiny patches of color combined with pure color. These parallel lines can be seen in the veins of the beans. The mottled streaky texture of seeds with skin, and a granular texture, which she renders with a pointillist technique, are evident at the bottom of the painting.

Giovanna alternated between varnished surfaces, rich tempera and watercolor, pointillist:

Giovanna Garzoni (Italian Baroque Era Painter, 1600-1670) Still LifeflowersFigsBean
Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, a Vase with Carnations, and Shells on a Table (n.d.)

Plate of Pears

and works where she used a stippling technique to achieve a grainy surface. She includes butterflies, insects, birds, and small animals:

A Dish with a Pomegranate, a Grasshopper, a Snail, and Two Chestnuts

GarzoniMordmardock (Large)
Still Life with Birds and Fruit

Her botanical studies are less well known:

Hyacinth, with Four Cherries, a Lizard, and an Artichoke — remember Henry Tilney said of Catherine nursing a hyacinth (n.d.): One cannot have too many holds on happiness

I like this Ranunculous with Two Almonds and a Hymenopteran (n.d)


She did the bursting forth of flowers typical of later women painters:

Vase with Flowers, a Peach and a Butterfly (n.d.)

and also A Mandrake:


It is thought that some of the detail has hidden meanings (sometimes allegorical, as images of vanity), beyond a scientific study


This with its strange intensities:

Giovanna  Garzoni TuttArt

This is of the caliber that brought her commissions, respect, fame, money (we hope)

Plate with Almonds, Nespole, and a Rose (1660-62), tempera on parchment

Again from Vigue: Garzoni presents a simple plate of ripe green medlars, together with their leaves and fruit, to which a dash of red is added in the guise of a red rose. One of the medlars on the far left has been sliced into two, showing the fruit with and without its seed, which appears to have just fallen out. In the foreground, the elaborate yellow leaves become gradually sketchier as they recede into the background. The rose is partially enveloped in a yellow color, softly varnished over the parchment. This work’s botanical motifs attest to the scientific interest the Medici had in the produce from their land and country gardens. Both Duke Fernando II (1610-1670) and his brother, Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici (1617-70) were friends of Galileo’s and had an important art collection containing numerous botanical and fauna motifs. This still life, comparable to Garzoni’s other exquisite still-life works of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, offers an attractive illustration of the botanical produce of the period, painted in a realistic and decorative style.


The frontispiece, Plante Varie, c 1650, perhaps a self-portrait

While we can see a smile on her face, a sharp look in quiet eyes, self-awareness, beyond this image, and a very few family details, little is known about Garzoni’s inward or private life beyond that she seems to have separated herself from her nuclear family early on.

Her mother, Isabetta Gaia and her father, Giacomo were Venetian; a grandfather Nicola, and uncle Vincenzo, were goldsmiths, and another maternal uncle, Pietro Gaia, a painter from the school of Palma the Younger. She was briefly married to a Venetian artist, Tiberio Tinelli (1624) but (it’s said) since she had made “a vow of chastity,” the marriage was soon dissolved. We are told she had “differences from her family” and so in 1630 departed with her brother, Mattio, to travel to Naples, to work for the Spanish viceroy, Duke of Alcala. In some letters in 1630 she describes herself as a “servant” to Anna Colonna, wife of Taddeo Barberini. Christina of France also “persistently contacted” her to come to do miniatures at the Turinese court. Less documentable, but suggestive are the close similarities between her work and that of Fede Galizia (c 1574-1630)

This Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces and a Grasshopper is closely similar: Greer characterizes Galizia’s work as filled with “reverent contemplation:”


Both were fond of cherries:

Fede Galizia
Fede Galizia

Garzoni is more varied, more bursting with energy, has these repeated idiosyncratic personal touches, more interesting even if we can’t break her code

Her death in Rome in 1670 is attributed to the “undermining” of “her health,” and the erection of a tomb by the Accademia of San Luca in the Church of San Luca and Santa Marina in Rome took 28 years.

All else written about her is about her career, contacts, and works: her earliest known work was for a Venetian church, she attended a calligraphy school in Venice (Giacomo Rogni), and produced a book of cursive chancery characters. There’s a dated miniature done in Venice of a “gentleman” from 1625 at the Hague. She spent but one year in Naples, from which she wrote an important patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo (member of Academy of Lincei, linked to Pope Urban VIII Barberini’s family). When the Spanish viceroy left, she went to Turin (November 1632) and stayed for five years.

Portrait of Carlo Emmanuele I, Duke of Savoy c. 1632-37

Portraits of the Savoy family stem from this time and she begins her still lifes. She’s said to have been influenced here by Flemish artists and Fede Galizia.

We can locate Garzoni in Paris in 1640 because of a letter sent by Ferninando de’ Bardi, the Medicean ambassador, to a Florentine grand ducal secretariat saying Garzoni was uncomfortable in this environment and recommending her as a miniaturist. A work to be sent to Florence, perhaps a portrait of the Duchess, Vittoria della Rovere, was promised.

We catch up with her again with her brother, Mattio, 1642, in Rome; she then traveled to Florence to work for this Medici court. Copies of Raphael, parchments with vases of flowers, still life, portraits, animals come from this time and place. In 1651 she is back in Rome but continues to work with and for the Florentine court (20 miniatures of fruit); she is invited to meeting of the Accademia of San Luca but grew ill — with too much work? pressure? old age? In 1666 she makes her will, directing where she is to be buried and leaving all her possessions to the Church of San Luca and Santa Marina, in Rome.

One scholar, Tongiorgi Tomasi (1997) has argued that image of her (at last) on Plante Varie is derived from portraits of her by Giuseppe Ghezzi, who was the secretary for the Accademia of San Luca by an unknown artist. This does remind me of arguments cited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree in their Later Manuscripts of Jane Austen where a few times the obvious candidate for the author of a poem at the time attributed to Austen is said to be an an unknown person. The book is now owned by the Botanical Library of Dumbarton Oaks and is at Harvard and has been described by Agnes Mongan in 1984, published in 1991 in a monograph by Gerardo Casale and Paola Lanzara, reviewed by Liana de Girolami Cheney in The Sixteenth Century Journal, 29:1 (1998):257-58.

In the climate of Italy at the time for women (where women were routinely forced into nunneries, married off) to live the somewhat independent life of an artist she kept her private life austere and quiet. She was careful, guarded. It could not have been easy. Let us recall the excoriation of Artemisia Gentileschi for going to court because she was raped. Garzoni did latch similarly on to powerful patrons. Giovanna Garzoni’s botany is not done in the same spirit as that of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), whose work is not an escape, not strange (no insects, no odd flowers, no controlled wildness), and seems done in a sheerly scientific student spirit.


Partially eaten melons, some grapes, and a wandering about insect

As context for studying her style and art, I’ll cite Germaine Greer and Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art) who (like other surveys, but with a bit more information and comment) name several women artists of this era about whom little is known. Elena Recco (fl 1680-1710, Madrid) whose work is connected to the court of Carlos II of Spain, resembles Galizia’s and Garzoni, with the difference she could branch out (so to speak) into whole landscapes of this sort of fiercely conceived and painted material from the non-human natural world. Recco’s are more deadly, show the ravages of killing and death:

Elena Recco, Still Life (her few works are scattered, many used to be attributed to her father)

Is there a lesbian aesthetic at work here? I don’t see it.

A Branch of Dittany, with Four Hazelnuts and Two Pears (n.d)

Still lifes are silent; a woman cannot be accused of anything anti-familial or sexual or by anyone of breaking a social taboo beyond that of aspiration to create art; she need not pay for a model, nor expose her body:

A strange flower arrangement — her flowers are often decaying:

Giovanna Garzonistrangeflowers

I don’t feel Giovanna was finding peace either: as may be seen in Charlotte Smith:

To the Goddess of Botany:

OF Folly weary, shrinking from the view
Of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts for ever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swollen eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your ‘bells and florrets of unnumber’d dyes’
Might rest–And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the ocean’s waves.

She called herself a miniaturist and we could end on Austen (appropriate for this blog): “ . . . the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” — Jane Austen to James-Edward Austen-Leigh.

But it seems to me these paintings show someone who was ever trying to break out of such self-restraint. The inner mood of the paintings puts me in mind of the inner mood of the poetry of Chiara Matraini (1515-1604?)

I am a wild deer in this shady wood
With a sharp arrow driven through my heart.
I flee, alas, that which would end my pain
And seek him who destroys me bit by bit;
And like a bird that feels among her feathers
A lighted fire, which makes her flyaway
From her beloved nest: the heat goes with her
And all the time her wing-beats fan the flame.
So I, among these leaves in summer air,
Flying on high with wings of strong desire, 10
Attempt to quench the flame I carry with me.
But howsoever much from bank to bank
I go to flee my ill, with fierce assault
I gain a long death for my little life.
— translators Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille


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