Call of Nature

Roanoke museum unveils art exhibit featuring works by 17th-century naturalist and scientific illustrator.   

Hand-colored engraving from Metamorphosis Insectorium Surinamensium.   

Image courtesy of Arader Galleries.

It’s been nearly 300 years since German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian created her last piece of art. Beginning Thursday, Sept. 15, the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum on the campus of Hollins University in Roanoke will host Between Art & Science: Maria Sibylla Merian, an exhibit featuring 10 pieces of her work.  

“This small exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see original works by this early, important artist whose works have recently enjoyed renewed art historical research and scientific interest,” says museum director Jenine Culligan. “They are also beautiful works of art in their own right.”

Merian (1647-1717) was born into a family of artists, so it was only natural that she picked up a paintbrush at a young age. As an adolescent she became fascinated with the life cycles of caterpillars and butterflies, which her father, still-life painter Jacob Marrel, kept in his art studio as a painting reference. A woman with an insatiable curiosity, Merian published her first book of natural illustrations, Neues Blumebuch (“New Book of Flowers”), when she was 28, featuring watercolor engravings of flowers.  

In 1699, Merian and her daughter moved traveled to Surinam, a South American Dutch colony at the time, on a trip sponsored by the city of Amsterdam. They spent two years documenting the region’s plants and exotic insects, and later published Metamorphosis Insectorium Surinamensium (“Insects of Surinam”), a book featuring 60 hand-colored copperplate engravings. 

The exhibit, open through Sunday, Dec. 11, includes one of Merian’s original watercolors on vellum (parchment made from calfskin), six transfer print watercolors and three hand-colored copperplate engravings. Two original watercolors by her eldest daughter Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff will also be on display. Between Art & Science will appear in the Ballator-Thompson gallery of the museum; on Sunday, Sept. 18 the museum will host a public opening reception for the exhibit in the first floor lobby of the Richard Wetherill Visual Arts Center. Hollins.edu/museum  

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