A grand engagement with the natural world Travel

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a steady influx of wonderful plants and animals from overseas provided European artists with new subjects to paint. Some of them decided they needed to see these wonderful things in their native settings. One of the first of these adventurous traveling artists was, unusually for the time, a middle-aged divorced woman. Maria Sibylla Merian was born in 1647 in Germany to a Swiss printmaker and draftsman and his wife.

From an early age, Merian was passionate about both insects and painting, and lovingly painted fruit, flowers, and the insects she captured and bred. Married at 18, she had two daughters, and combined looking after them with working as an artist and teacher, until she left her husband to live in a commune in Denmark. Later, she moved to Amsterdam, and then, at the age of 52, she sold everything she owned, wrote a will, and set out with her younger daughter for the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. There, Merian made her own way. With great difficulty, she ventured deep into the rainforest to collect plants and insects:

“One could find a great many things in the forest if it were passable: but it so densely overgrown with thistles and thorn bushes that I had to send my slaves ahead with axe in hand to hack an opening for me.” Eventually, malaria or yellow fever forced Merian to return to Amsterdam, where she raised the money to publish her work in a series of portfolios, including The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Surinam, published in 1705. The resulting, mostly life-sized, paintings are phenomenally beautiful, and every bit as colorful and astonishing as the life of the woman who painted them.

The Grand Tour

man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority,” proclaimed English man-of-letters Samuel Johnson. This was somewhat self-effacing considering Johnson had never visited the country. He was, however, acknowledging a belief widely held at the time, namely that an extended trip to Italy was fundamental to a man’s education. Italy, and Rome in particular, had been a popular destination for northern European artists, intellectuals, and diplomats since at least the 17th century, and a good education “

Cultural pilgrimage

In 1670, a book called Voyage of Italy, or A Compleat Journey Through Italy, was published, in which its author, Englishman Richard Lassels, called this phenomenon of cultural pilgrimage the “Grand Tour.” The Grand Tourists were almost exclusively male and, at least in the beginning, mostly British. As the world’s wealthiest nation, Britain had a substantial upper class with enough money and leisure time to travel. Usually accompanied by a tutor or guardian, called a Bear Leader, the young aristocrats might spend anything from a few months to several years journeying across Europe.


By the mid-18th century, when Grand Tourism was at its peak, travel was surprisingly well organized. There were regular cross-Channel sailings, and travelers could, for example, arrange for transportation across

Last word

It was fashionable for Grand Tourists to have their portrait done. This painting is by Louis Gauffier, a French artist living in Italy, who made a living selling his work to British visitors.

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