Merian

The “Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters” exhibit, which runs through Aug.31 at the Getty, includes Merian’s watercolors of a pomegranate tree with visitors, circa 1665. (The J. Paul Getty Trust)

GARDENERS know they're never alone. Visitors arrive nonstop, by land and by air. Birds, bees, butterflies, bats, beetles, snails, snakes, lizards, mice, frogs. Maria Sibylla Merian painted them all -- and at a time when no one knew exactly what many of these creatures were, or what to call them. Her 300-year-old illustrations and some actual insect specimens that inspired them are on view in a new exhibition, "Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science," at the Getty Center.

These days, one computer click can help identify mysterious garden guests. But in the 1600s, when Merian lived, the natural world was not fully understood. Entomology, the study of insects, was not an established field. Some bugs were considered satanic; anyone harboring them might be burned at the stake. Caterpillars and other creatures were thought to develop spontaneously from rotting meat and decaying fruit.

The Getty exhibit traces Merian's extraordinary life and art, which defied social norms of the era. By going her own way -- becoming a passionate insect observer, artist and self-taught scholar -- she helped advance the science of entomology and changed the course of natural history illustration.

Merian, born in Germany in 1647, started painting flowers at 13, under the guidance of her stepfather, who was a still-life artist. She married at 18, bore two daughters and kept expanding her artistic repertoire. It grew to include not just flowers, fruits and birds but also many of the gnats, worms, flies, spiders and other specimens found in European gardens. Caterpillars, whose life cycles she studied as they transformed into butterflies, were her favorite subjects.

Merian kept meticulous journals of her observations. She painted on canvas, paper and textiles. And she did all this, one historian of the time noted, "while maintaining a tidy household." But not for too long.

At 39, she left her husband and took her daughters to live in a religious community in what is now the Netherlands. By that time she had produced her own books of flower paintings and one called "Caterpillars, Their Wondrous Transformation and Peculiar Nourishment From Flowers." Her exquisitely detailed and colored illustrations of metamorphoses showed the caterpillar's life cycle from egg to larva to chrysalis to adult.

"When she did all this, it wasn't totally accepted that moths and butterflies were born of eggs," says Stephanie Schrader, associate curator of drawings at the center's J. Paul Getty Museum. "What's so remarkable is that she helped solidify scientific knowledge. And she made these important discoveries as an artist, not as a scholar. She had no university education, no formal training of any kind. She not only demonstrated the metamorphosis" of caterpillars into butterflies and moths, "but she showed it as a dynamic process, including depictions of the insects' food sources. That had never been done before."

In her 50s, Merian traveled to Suriname, where she depicted the area's tropical flora and fauna, never before documented for Europeans. Throughout her lifetime, Merian's daughters, Johanna Helena and Dorothea Maria, assisted her art publishing and business projects. After Merian's death in 1717, they continued to promote and protect her legacy. This first major U.S. exhibition of Merian's work runs through Aug. 31. For information, go to: www.getty.edu.

bettijane.levine@latimes.com