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Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  308 ratings  ·  68 reviews
Before Darwin, before Audubon, there was Merian. An artist turned naturalist known for her botanical illustrations, she was born just sixteen years after Galileo proclaimed that the earth orbited the sun. But at the age of fifty she sailed from Europe to the New World on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis—an unheard-of journey for any naturalist at ...more
Hardcover, 328 pages
Published January 8th 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2007)
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3.87  · 
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 ·  308 ratings  ·  68 reviews

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Now theme and content wise Kim Todd's biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis) does indeed present a detailed and yes also very much meticulously researched portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian's life and times (a generally truthful depiction of an artist and scientist who might have lived in late 16th and early 17th century Germany and Holland but who with regard to her artistic endeavours and especially her science was definitely much ahe ...more
Sep 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: naturalists, women's history, students of entomology /lepidoptera
Recommended to Mitzie by: ORION magazine
I just finished this book and I can't recommend it highly enough. Other reviewers give you the gist what it's about - Maria Sibylla Merian upended the old curiosity cabinet by placing butterflies, catepillars and other insects in their natural habitats in her engravings/watercolors. A forerunner of ecology, she gave us a new way to think about a vast landscape of tiny creatures and their relations to host plants, to predators, etc, as well as her endless enthusiasm for the study of metamorphosis ...more
Oct 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
I just could not get myself really interested in this book. Its not that I don't like science (I do) and its not that I am disinterested in stories of women excelling in science (I am), but this book was so dry, it bored me. Now I recognize fully that it has received good reviews, so I think its only fair to disclose that maybe it was the writing style that didn't really gel with my personal tastes. But I really think she could have said a lot more with less-the excessively detailed writing lost ...more
Aug 05, 2008 rated it it was ok
So one of my least favorite things about autobiographies is when the author takes huge leaps of assumption on the inner lives of their subjects. 'As a woman, she must have felt this about that in this time,' etc. But in her defense, there was no other way to write about Maria Sibylla Merian- what a fascinating lady- gallivanting around Europe & South America collecting, studying and drawing bugs- incredibly detailedly (not a word i think), beautifully and prolifically and leaving almost no ...more
This is the seventeenth/eighteenth century life and legacy of a remarkable artist and scientist--and a woman, a German, a divorcee, a religious fanatic, and world traveler, all. Maria Merian studied and painted and engraved images of insects, ultimately traveling, in her fifties, to Surinam to continue her work, before returning to Europe.

This is an engaging, delightful book. Where other biographers complain about the lack of source material (or worse, take guesses), Ms. Todd fills the gaps wit
Janet Roberts
Jul 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
I saw this great book, opened at a different page each week, in the British Museum in London. The illustration was just breathtaking, having been created by Maria Sibylla Merian. I came away determined to find out more about this woman, so bought this sturdy book by Kim Todd.
Initially I was a little disappointed that there are so few illustrations, but the story is enralling. She was born in Germany 13 years after Galileo was prosecuted for proclaiming that the earth orbited the sun. In 1699, at
Feb 14, 2017 rated it liked it
2 and 1/2 stars. This book celebrates the life of a unique contributor to scientific knowledge in the 17th c.--a woman, a wife, a mother, and a divorcée, who yet was a successful artist, engraver, scientific observer, business woman, traveller, and writer and illustrator of books. Remarkable for a woman in her time and place, and her artistic and scientific achievements would have been remarkable for anyone. A student of insects since the age of 13, she was fascinated by the process of metamorph ...more
Jan 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
An excellent read. Ticked a lot of boxes - history, science, women, art, travel, religion - yet managed to pull it all together. I'm not sure that all the speculation about what Maria Merian might have seen or thought was really necessary... it might be fun to write a book about a contemporary scientist from 300 years in the future and fill it full of such speculation, but I think it would sound unnecessary and trite. Here it was saved by being 300 years in the past and based on good research. A ...more
Lisa Mcbroom
I lunched with a group of ladies yesterday and all they talked about was how old they were and they could no longer do things that younger people do! BORING! Age is a state of mind. Well obviously they did not know Maria Sibylla Merian. After Galeio and before Darwin, at ag e 50, Merian left her husband and sailed from Amersterdam to Suriyam to study the metamorsphis of butterflies. Disguising her interests as art, she influenced naturalists from generation to generation.
Sep 25, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: hfu2015, non-fiction
I felt that this dragged at times and I was expecting more of an actual biography of Merian. The author used too many "maybes" and "what ifs" to make this a compelling look into Merian's life. Instead, for me, this became more of a look into the history of the birth of biology and ecology as a science. I would recommend this only for people with a strong interest in the biological sciences.
Jul 16, 2007 rated it really liked it
A book about Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman who was early in the field of insect and plant study and painting, with a unique emphasis on metamorphasis. The book starts off by disclosing that there is very little known about her except for a few archival materials, and her illustrations. But Kim Todd, the author, combines her story wonderfully and informatively with the history of the times (mostly late 1600s, early 1700s).

Todd was clearly enchanted by her subject and her illustrations, and makes
Enjoyed this story of a woman who had to fight against the social norms and expectations of the day (early 17th century) to satisfy her need to research and *know*. She was fascinated by the concept of metamorphosis at a time when many scientists and philosophers simply assumed the principle of spontaneous generation explained the appearance of flies on rotting meat, or roaches and mice from soiled clothes.

She used natural observation and meticulous scientific illustration to document the proces
Paula Koneazny
I really enjoyed this biography of 17th c. artist & naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. The combination of her fascinating story & Todd's elegant prose makes for a great reading experience. I saw a copy of Merian's "Metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam" among the rare manuscripts on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino in May. Her detailed drawings are amazing. In 1699 Merian set off from Amsterdam with her daughter Dorothea to travel to the Dutch colony of Surinam, where they ...more
Jul 14, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: my-reads
All in all, this book was well worth my time to read it. And it wasn't quick for me to read. I found this book by accident on the library shelf, and I ended up learning a lot about someone I'd never heard of before, who was innovative in a field I'd known only superficially before. I have only two criticisms, both of which are more my hang-ups than the book's.

This a well-researched book. It is obviously not fiction, but at times it read like a dissertation or a textbook. The footnotes, bibliogra
Jul 13, 2007 rated it liked it
There were parts of this book I just loved. I'm a butterfly fanatic of sorts and a feminist of sorts so it was incredible to read about a woman in the early 17th century who studed metamorphosis & butterflies! The book includes examples of some of the many watercolors and etchings Merian created while studying the caterpillar and butterfly.
The book is categorized as 'creative non-fiction'. It's all facts with a little bit of speculation on the part of the auther. However, the narrative lost
Jul 23, 2008 marked it as to-read
An artist turned naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian was born just thirteen years after Galileo was prosecuted for claiming the earth orbited the sun. But in 1699, more than a century before Darwin or Humboldt, she sailed from Amsterdam to South America on an expedition to study insect metamorphosis. It was an unheard of journey for a naturalist at that time, much less a woman, and she undertook it at the age of fifty-two, with only her daughter for company.
Dec 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-2015
I am curious to read about this 17th century woman artist/botanist who was of a great importance in showing the world metamorphosis. Having been drawing nature in detail and small scale these last few years, I look forward to Maria Sybilla Merian's drawings.(and I think it's time for me to do some travelling again........far, far away).
Nov 10, 2016 rated it liked it
I was so excited to read about Maria Sibylla Merian, a truly amazing person, but this book just didn't hold my interest. I didn't even finish it...I just couldn't, which is rare. I realize that not much is known about her life, so the author had to extrapolate, etc. I will just have to be content with the snippets of information about her that I can find from other sources.
Aug 03, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
In the late 1600s, early 1700s, a woman named Maria S. Merian works as an illustrator and naturalist, creating amazing renditions of caterpillars and other insects. The author does not have lot to go on, but she manages to create a readable and interesting story. The last chapters get a bit heavy on the women's studies angle--but otherwise, it is a decent book.
Aug 01, 2008 rated it liked it
Not all that scholarly (how is her father in law a high school teacher in early modern Europe?), but very interesting and a good introduction to Merian's life and the natural history milieu at the time.
Oct 12, 2015 rated it liked it
A little too dry for my liking. Each time I felt like putting it down for good the narrative would pick up and propel me through until the next rough patch.
Feb 04, 2008 rated it did not like it
terribly boring- I didn't finish
Beverly J.
Apr 02, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: gave-up-on
Just too dry for my taste. What a wonderful woman, so far ahead of her time. I wish I had more patience, I would love to learn more about her.
Mar 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating and compelling book about a pioneering entomologist, Chrysalis combines the best aspects of biography, history, travel log, and science into a single gripping story. Maria Sibylla Merian was a woman far ahead of her time, an insect enthusiast who studied the process of metamorphosis when most people thought insects were spawned spontaneously and a skilled artist who insisted on sketching her highly detailed portraits from life in a period when outlandish and exaggerated drawings we ...more
Heather Jones
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I picked this book up off the browsing shelf at the Mercantile Library, without having ever heard of Maria Sibylla Merian, mostly because it had an appealing cover. Besides, the Mercantile's collection is small but well chosen; once you're inside, you can be reasonably sure that all of the books are good. That gives me a lot of confidence when checking things out on impulse.

This book is a fascinating story about an early naturalist who is largely forgotten by history, an inspiring tale of a woma
Jun 11, 2018 added it
Shelves: biography, history
Maria Sibylla Merian broke out of the mold of 17th-century women's "place" and she may have been the first ecologist. She studied plants and insects and their interactions and she combined art and science by her innovative illustrations. She was the first (so the author says) to create illustrations that combine plants and insects. She was endlessly curious, starting with a collection of silkworms when she was 13. The high point of her life was her two-year trip to Surinam (Dutch colony in South ...more
Jan 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016, readharder16
I read this book as my biography and as a non-fiction book about science for Read Harder '16. At my library, we have some of Merian's books so I was intrigued to learn more about her life and work, and as an archivist, I enjoyed learning how Todd traced Merian's life which was not heavily documented. On the one hand, it was really inspiring to read about Merian's innovations as a scientist and artist, but depressing to think about how her life was constrained by her gender and her work brushed a ...more
Ashley Kennedy
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating account of an overlooked female scientist who was way ahead of her time and whose work has been dismissed/overshadowed by men who came after her. At a time when women had few rights and were frequently burnt at the stake, she undertook natural history studies and even traveled from Europe to Surinam (with her young daughter-- and not her husband, gasp!) to learn more. Her work on insect metamorphosis was groundbreaking and her art remains unparalleled today, in my opinion. Thank you, ...more
Dec 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
An excellent biography of a lost female leader whose hard work at documentation aided our understanding of metamorphosis. Merian's life was as extraordinary as her art, so this was a very thrilling read.
Apr 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I read this book several years ago and still am inspired by Merian's story, as told by Todd. I really enjoy reading about insects, natural history, and women in science, so this was a great book for me.
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“Ultimately, the intoxication of exploration seemed to draw her further from god rather than closer.” 1 likes
“But merian, so often able to slide by the rules somehow, held on to her specialised tools: her book of notes, her paints, her expensive vellum--carta non nata, skin from unborn lambs, that held the color like nothing else. She brought her mixing materials and pigments.” 1 likes
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