Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

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Plate XXVI Cacao
  • Maria Sibylla Merian
    born: Frankfurt, Germany ; died: Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Plate XXVI Cacao, 1771
  • Histoire générale des insectes de Surinam et de toute l’Europe, contenant leurs descriptions, leurs figures, leurs differentes metamorphoses, de même que les descriptions des plantes, fleurs & fruits, dont ils se nourissent ... par Mademoiselle Marie Sybille de Merian, en deux parties in-folio
  • book
  • Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Department of Special Collections, H25; Courtesy of Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries
  • Not on display
  • EL2018.008.a
  • Loan: Not in the Spencer's collection
Label Text

Exhibition Label:
"Big Botany: Conversations with the Plant World", 27-Mar-2018
Artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian traveled to the then-Dutch colony of Surinam to document and observe the local plant and animal life. Merian’s depiction of the cocao plant exemplifies the European interest in New World subject matter. This plant had been cultivated for hundreds if not thousands of years by Indigenous Americans who roasted and ground its seeds to produce chocolate drinks and, in some cases, these seeds even functioned as currency. Many Europeans prized cocao initially for its supposed medicinal properties, and as it became a delicacy it was imported en masse along with other goods such as coffee and rubber to Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Merian unifies pictorially the interwoven fabric of the lives flora and fauna. Her 1671 publication, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (The Wonderful Transformation of Caterpillars and [Their] Singular Plant Nourishment), both describes the transformation of caterpillars into moths and butterflies and also depicts the plants that these insects eat and inhabit. Indeed, she never depicted a plant without including the holes or nibbled edges left behind by hungry insects.