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Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Cotton-Leaf Physicnut with Giant Sphinx Moth


Watercolour and bodycolour over lightly etched outlines on vellum | 40.7 x 27.9 cm (vellum sheet) | RCIN 921195

  • A watercolour of a branch of the Cotton-Leaf Physicnut (Jatropha gossypifolia) with the life cycle of a Giant Sphinx Moth (Cocytius antaeus) and an unidentified butterfly. This is a version of plate 38 in Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. In her accompanying text, Merian noted the medicinal properties of the plant and the impressive length of the Giant Sphinx Moth's proboscis.

    This is one of a set of luxury versions of the plates from Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname), published in Amsterdam in 1705. To make these versions, Merian (probably assisted by her daughters) appears to have inked sections of each etched plate and run it through the press to create a partial print. While the ink of that print was still wet, she placed a sheet of vellum against it, transferring a reverse image onto the vellum. This ‘counterproof’ was then worked up and coloured by hand. The Royal Collection plates are partially printed and partially hand-drawn, the printing mainly being used for the insects. As Merian was only transferring selected areas of the printed image, she could vary the arrangements of the plates, with the positions of the butterflies and moths subtly altered to create unique compositions.


    Dr Richard Mead (1673–1754); his sale (London, Abraham Langford, 13–16 January 1755, lot 66), where purchased by an unknown collector; sold 15 June 1768 (London, Paterson and Eve, lot 572), where purchased by Sir John Hill via Wilson; George III by c.1810

  • Medium & Techniques

    Watercolour and bodycolour over lightly etched outlines on vellum

    watercolour, bodycolour, vellum

    etched outlines


    40.7 x 27.9 cm (vellum sheet)

    36.5 x 50.1 cm (backing sheet)

  • References

    RL 21195

    Alternative titles

    Plate 38 to Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium