The Illustration of Nature as a Collaborative Enterprise: Examining the Artistic Practices of Maria Sibylla Merian and the Women Artists in her Network
The collaborative nature of early modern natural science has been well established. As Brian Ogilvie noted, the development of botanical knowledge, amongst other areas of focus, “could be the product only of a community” (Ogilvie 2006). In the Dutch Republic and in England, professors of medicine and botany, apothecaries, merchants, collectors, and other enthusiasts established networks through which they exchanged information and specimens and produced knowledge. The dissemination of the natural knowledge these networks fostered depended critically on the production and distribution of prints and drawings, which facilitated the cataloguing and identification of specimens, and were of course aesthetically pleasing. Many women played an important role in the creation and production of illustrations of naturalia, including detailed studies of insects.
In the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, the traditional relationship between women and the garden, a passion for collecting and the exotic, and the deeply-held belief of the existence of a bond between God and nature, amongst other things, contributed to make observing, collecting, and illustrating of nature an appropriate activity for women, notwithstanding the constraints imposed upon them by contemporary gender and socio-political expectations (Powell-Warren 2022). While a number of the better-known women botanical artists (many of the artists who produced such images have remained anonymous) have received more attention in the recent scholarship—a prime example being Maria Sibylla Merian—research has not delved into the practices of natural history illustration by women. How did the women obtain specimens for illustration? How did they find patrons? How did they go about completing large illustration projects?
This paper aims to provide some answers to these questions by focusing on Merian and on her immediate network of women artists, particularly her daughters (Johanna Helena Herolt and Dorothea Maria Gsell), as well as Alida Withoos and Maria Moninckx. My research has established that these five women not only carried out artistic practices of the same nature (principally of plants, flowers, and insects), but that they also produced works for many of the same patrons, including Simon Schijnvoet, Agnes Block, and the City of Amsterdam. The women almost certainly shared specimens to serve as models. A close observation of the artworks they produced suggests the presence of many hands: sometimes, one artist illustrated the specimen in bloom, while the other showed its seeds. Other times, two or more artists each illustrated a variety of a same species on a single sheet of paper. Based on the examination of works, archival research, and network analysis, this paper argues that contrary to commonly-held assumptions, the artistic practices of these women and the illustration of nature was not individualistic but, rather, a collaborative enterprise. Just as the development of natural knowledge was the work of an entire community, a study of some of the most important women artists of the late seventeenth-century in the Dutch Republic demonstrates that the creation, production, and dissemination of visual natural knowledge also depended collaboration— in this case of an entire community of women.