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The Elder Daughter

Frankfurt – Nuremberg – Frankfurt – Frisia – Amsterdam – Paramaribo

Johanna Helena Gräffin (1668-1728)

The elder daughter Johanna Helena came to Nuremberg shortly after her birth when her parents moved from Frankfurt to Nuremberg. She doubtlessly got her artisan’s “basic training” from both parents, both in Nuremberg and in Frankfurt. She experienced the time in the Labadist colony, and perhaps did not suffer as greatly as her younger sister from growing up separately from their parents, because she got to know a young man who did not bow to Pierre Yvon’s unrelenting severity. Hendrick Herolt (~1660-1715) from Bacharach (1) in spite of being a “brother” and belonging to the “selected”, finally dissociated himself from the Labadists and became a successful merchant in Amsterdam, trading with and travelling to Suriname, (2)

After mother and daughters had moved to Amsterdam in late June 1692, the banns of Johanna Helena and Hendrick were published at the Amsterdam City Hall. Nothing stood in the way of their wedding - or rather of the official confirmation and legalisation of their marriage, which had already taken place in the Labadist colony but had to be officially ratified in Amsterdam in order to be considered legally binding. (3)

At the same time Johanna Helena developed her own style, which, following Ella Reitsma, we can call her “own hand”: her water colours are bolder, more three-dimensional than those of her mother. (4) Might she have learned this illusion of depth in her drawings from her father, the master of perspective drawing?

The daughter’s flower motifs often seem so very much alive because they keep growing beyond the margins of the page, just like this passion flower, which belongs to a series of 49 of her drawings on parchment kept in the Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick where they are classified as gouaches, with the boundary between them and watercolours defined as a flowing one by art experts. (5)

Some of these masterpieces of which she herself has written an inventory and which are dated 1698, are signed by her personally. They are a fascinating example of her artistic talent. (6)

Some motifs can also be found in other collections. In this context, Ella Reitsma raises the question of the value of the distinction between an original, a replica and a copy. It would be wrong to talk pejoratively about “serial production” in the “Merian” family firm, though a significant part of the household’s income was based – according to customers’ wishes – on duplications of the popular motifs of the Merian water colours (7) and on illuminating the Caterpillar Books.

Blue Passion Flower (8)

Serpentaria with Butterflies (9)

As a painter, Johanna Helena took on some of her mother’s commissions, and the daughter’s “variations” have their own, independent value. The term “variation” is used deliberately here, in analogy to a form much appreciated in music. Sometimes (as shown on the right), she succeeds in creating fascinating compositions quite unlike those we know from her mother’s work. (10)

Johanna Helena remained integrated in the “family firm” with her mother and her younger sister, even after her daughter (Maria) Abigail was born, probably around 1700 in Amsterdam. (11) Jacob Hendrik Herolt, because of his wide travels and good local knowledge, could also assist and advise his mother-in-law with the preparations for her expedition to Suriname. Maybe his wife Johanna Helena even accompanied him on one of these voyages in the 1690s. (12) So the Merian’s expedition to Suriname was not a journey into the unknown.

There is no doubt that Johanna Helena also helped her mother with the mammoth, large-format work containing copper etchings of plants and animals in the Tropics after the latter’s return from Suriname. Individual folios from the "Surinamese Insects" were printed and the first already sold even before the entire book had been completed. Especially in the form of coloured counter proofs, they can hardly be distinguished from hand-drawn and coloured one-off depictions, also called "unica. (13) Ella Reitsma even sees Johanna Helena as the creator of the most powerful compositions amongst the templates for some copper etchings. (14)

When, after four years of intensive labour, the volume was published in 1705 as Merian’s crowning glory (15), considerable work still went into colouring - then called "illuminating" - several as yet unbound copies, which could achieve a much higher price than the black-and-white prints. Only a few of these "original coloured" counter proofs have survived to our day and they are amongst the most valuable printed works from the "Merian workshop".

Johanna Helena probably emigrated permanently to Suriname around 1711. She did so with her daughter Maria Abigail and her husband, who not only worked there as a merchant, but also as one of the rectors of the orphanage in Paramaribo and supervisor of any legacies bequeathed to orphans. (16) From there she continued to work for the Merian family firm in Amsterdam – we know that because in 1712 her mother informed a client in a letter that she had received Surinamese insects and other taxidermied animals for sale from this daughter. (17) In the letters from Merian which have been preserved to this day, no evidence could be found that Johanna Helena also continued to paint in Suriname, but her mother would not have revealed this in her letters. As a businesswoman, Merian paid great attention to quality, but when she could offer new "Merian watercolours" for sale, her customers did not need to know that they had been painted and sent by her daughter in Suriname. Several watercolours that bear the hallmark of the daughter's style are unsigned or signed with her mother's name.

A pointer to the continuing collaboration can be found on the title page of the third Caterpillar Book (1717). There, a future additional supplement (“Appendix”) was announced and in the preface the younger daughter, as editor, promised tropical insects observed by Johanna Helena, currently resident in Suriname.(18) For Ella Reitsma, these sentences are proof that Johanna Helena "was still in the business". (19) This supplement was never published and questions about it remain unresolved. Did Johanna Helena find time to observe and draw the insects? Did these precious sketches sink in a sailing boat which capsized on the voyage to Amsterdam? Or, after the younger sister had emigrated to Russia, was there nobody left in Amsterdam who could have looked after the publication?

1728 starb Johanna Helena als Witwe in Paramaribo. (20) Sie hatte zahlreiche Enkel, von denen vier zu ihren Lebzeiten geboren wurden. (21).

In Merian’s St. Petersburg watercolours there are several depictions of tropical plants without the four stages of metamorphosis typical of Maria Sibylla Merian. Their lively, "Baroque" style suggests the artist was Johanna Helena rather than her mother and they might even have arrived in Amsterdam after Johanna Helena's death. In 1734 the younger daughter, Dorothea Maria, once more travelled from St. Petersburg to Amsterdam, with the permission and on behalf of the Tsar, to acquire more artwork for the Academy.(22) Perhaps the 30 drawings which Dorothea Maria took back to St. Petersburg at that time (23) not only belonged to the estate of her elder sister, but had even been painted (at least in part?) by Johanna Helena. This is more likely than that such fragile originals by her mother were preserved for more than 20 years in a tropical climate and exposed to the risks involved in being transported to and fro.

This opens up a wide field for the stylistic comparison of the "hands" of mother and daughter. This has already been attempted by Ella Reitsma for watercolours in the monograph (24) and additionally for her coloured counter proofs in an exhibition of Merian works by Royal Collection at the Queen's Gallery in London in 2016. (25)

  1. Davis (Lit 1995), p.164
  2. loc. cit. p. 166 und p. 312, footnote No. 109
  3. Reitsma (Lit 2008), p. 105; Davis (Lit 1995) p. 312 endnote 109, mentions a marriage contract
  4. loc. cit. (Lit 2008), 139 ff
  5. loc. cit. p. 160 concerning “watercolour” and “body colour”
  6. loc. cit. p. 150f
  7. loc. cit. p. 135
  8. Herolt, Johanna Helena, Blaue Passionsblume, gouache, 37.5 x 30.2 cm; double frame line of brown ink on whitened parchment; courtesy of Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Inv. No. H 27 No. 24b, Bl. 43
  9. Herolt, Johanna Helena, Serpentaria, gouache, 379 x 302 mm, double frame line of brown ink on whitened parchment; courtesy of Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museums, Braunschweig, Inv. No. H 27 No. 24b, Bl. 6
  10. Reitsma loc.cit. (Lit 2008), p. 139ff
  11. loc. cit. p. 238
  12. Rücker (Lit 1967), p. 14, even assumes that Johanna Helena had already lived in Suriname with her husband before her mother’s expedition
  13. MSM+Lit 2016, Heard, Maria Merian‘s butterflies with catalogue of this exhibition, compare esp. p. 33
  14. Lit-2008, Reitsma, p. 214: „de meest krachtige (powerful) composities“: examples: plate XXXIII (=33) Feigenzweig [branch of a fig], plate XL (=40); Papaybaum [papaya tree], plate XLI (=41) Winde mit Patate [convolvulus with sweet potato].
  15. German National Museum Nuremberg, title of the exhibition from 28.2.2012 to 4.2.2013: „MERIANS KRÖNUNGSWERK – DIE WUNDERWELT DER TROPEN“
  16. Lit 2015, Davis dates the permanent move to 1711, Lit 1995, p. 200 and footnote 236, pp. 333f // Lit 1980, Pfister-Burkhalter, p. 55 dated to 1702 // Lit 2008, Reitsma, p. 237 auf 1714. The passenger lists of ships returning from Suriname are still extant (SocSur). Davis has checked them all and has not found the names Johanna Helena or Jacob Hendrik Herolt anywhere before 1723: Davis (Lit 1995) p. 334, there endnote 237
  17. Lit 2020 - Merian-Briefe, letter 18, to James Petiver, London, August 29th 1712, p. 88ff, in Dutch, by a different hand, with signature Maria Sibilla Merian: „… dat ik von meyne dogter heb ontfangen van Surinaamsche Insecten ….“ [that I have received some Surinamese insects from my daughter]; also in Lit 1997 – Wettengl, Kurt, p. 269 (there only translation)
  18. Preface from the third part of the Caterpillar Books in Dutch: „Daar by voegende, een Appendix van Surinaamsche Insecten, geobserveert door myne Suster Johanna Helena Herolt, tegenwoordig noch tot Surinaame woonende, niet twyfelende of het eene en andere fal aangenaam zyn“ [Including an appendix with Surinamese insects observed by my sister Johanna Helena Herolt, currently residing in Suriname; and not doubting that this will be agreeable to the one or the other reader]. Compare, too, Lit 2008, Reitsma, Ella, p. 237, and Lit 1997, Wettengl with an essay by Davis, p. 200
  19. Lit 2008, Reitsma, Ella, p. 238
  20. The year of death given in the internet file card of the Nationaal Archief, The Hague, for "Herolt, Johanna Helena" is not correct. In the church books of the death with the burial dates in Surinam, which the same archive has published on the internet, there is no such entry for 9 Oct. 1728, but there is one for 9 Oct. 1730 (volume 23 and volume 23a).
  21. Cf. the detailed family tree by Renate Ell:
    Thanks to the author for further interesting genealogical research sent by email: The Herolt daughter Maria Abigail was married to Carel de Hoij from 1722 onwards and together they had at least seven children. Thus also Reitsma (Lit 2008) p. 238; possibly there are still descendants of hers living in the Netherlands or in other countries in the world.
  22. Lit 2008, Reitsma, p. 237
  23. ibidem
  24. Loc. cit., p. 197 ff
  25. MSM+Lit 2016, Heard, p. 33