Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

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Plate XXX Castor Oil Plant with Ricini Longwing Butterfly
  • Maria Sibylla Merian
    born: Frankfurt, Germany ; died: Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Plate XXX Castor Oil Plant with Ricini Longwing Butterfly, 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.b
  • 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. European audiences eagerly embraced plants she studied, including plant-based New World goods such as cocoa, coffee, and rubber, and began importing these goods en masse to Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Castor beans, native to tropical Africa, have been widely cultivated for a variety of purposes for thousands of years and have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 4000 BCE. The castor oil plant is the host plant of the Ricini Longwing Butterfly, two of which appear here along with an unidentified moth and larva of the Mimallonoidae family (or sack bearer moths). In the text accompanying this plate Merian derides the moth as “unsightly” and “totally wild-looking.”

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.