Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was one of the greatest artist-naturalists of her time. From childhood she had been fascinated by the life cycles of butterflies, and she made a close study of their transformations. She became a flower-painter and teacher in Nuremberg, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Inspired by exotic specimens imported from the Dutch colonies for the natural history collections of Holland, in 1699, at the age of fifty-two, Merian made an expedition to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) in South America. Her aim was to study the indigenous flora and fauna in their tropical habitat. On her return to Amsterdam two years later, she began work on a lavishly illustrated book, the Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Surinam, published in 1705), depicting the life cycles of the regions insects.
Most of Merians watercolours displayed here are de luxe versions (painted on vellum) of the plates of the Metamorphosis, together with some works produced independently of that publication.
The 95 watercolours by Merian in the Royal Collection were bought in 1755 by George III, when Prince of Wales.