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Cleaned or lost

Last Traces in Photos

In 1904 a small oil portrait was donated to the Fine Arts Museum in Basel. (1) At that time, however, it conveyed a different impression from today: Maria Sibylla Merian wore no earrings and a much more modest pearl necklace.

When the German National Museum in Nuremberg asked to borrow it for an exhibition in Nuremberg to mark the 250th anniversary of Maria Sibylla Merian’s death, the portrait was cleaned in Basel before it was sent on its journey to Nuremberg. To the surprise of all those involved, some of her hair had been painted in to cover the earrings and the raised collar made the pearl necklace appear narrower.

These alterations to the painting were removed when the painting was cleaned. We do not know who was responsible for the overpainting and when it happened, but the inscription on the back is probably connected with it and both date from the time when Sibylla Maria Merian withdrew from the world into the Labadist community in Frisia. At that time she took her maiden name again, which was visible on the back of the painting before the canvas was reinforced.

State of the oil painting till 1976, Fine Arts Mueum Basel, inv.No. 436

1988, ISBN 9783407806758

The catalogue for the exhibition in Nuremberg had already been printed and shows the earlier state. (2) This should not be dismissed as a falsification. It can also be an indication of a new attitude on the part of S. M. Merian towards her environment and her devotion to the Reformed faith. Therefore, this portrait may particularly appeal to some authors and readers.

Unfortunately, only poor copies of another important drawing are currently available. The copy of this signed, inked pen drawing from the estate of Prince Paravicini was published twice: in a magazine (1958) (3) and in a Merian biography (1980). (4)

In the signature, there is a reversed "G" for the first name Georg, entwined with the first letter of the surname "Gsell"; "delineavit" defines him as the draughtsman / designer.

Signature on this drawing: "GGsell delineavit“

Poem: Maria Sibilla Merian

Where God accepts from man whatever is right, man
makes the best of his talents, and lives peacefully with his Creator.
Thus Madame Merian brought the gift of her pencil,
and caused other art to bear fruit, by presenting the scene
of wonders created by God’s hand (which she observed in precise detail with her eyes
and pursued and increased [her knowledge] deep in America)
Leave her industry now, for the benefit of this generation,
which, as the small worm shows, strives for transformation.

From the cabinet of Mrs. Koerten Blok
Translation by this poem Florence Pieters, Amsterdam

For several years the widowed Swiss Baroque painter, art consultant and art dealer Georg Gsell (1643-1740) lived with his daughters as tenants in Merian’s house until she died (1717).

After that he emigrated to St. Petersburg in the same year. He was very successful as court painter to the Tsar and built up the Academy of Art together with his second wife, the younger Graf-Merian daughter Dorothea Maria. (5)

A direct comparison of the signed drawing with the copperplate engraving would be helpful, but apparently it is currently out of reach in private ownership. Gsell was close to Maria Sibylla, something also indicated by the poem, and the similarities between the (signed!) drawing and the printed etching are so striking that Gsell must be the designer ("inventor") of the etching.

Georg Gsell, Ink Pen Drawing with Portrait of M. S. Merian and Eulogy; probably model for Houbraken’s copper etching with her portrait of age

  1. Cf. Fine Arts Museum Basel, information in online-catalogue, no. 436
  2. Rücker, Elisabeth, Maria Sibylla Merian, Nuremberg 1967
  3. Unternehmenszeitschrift (business journal): "CIBA-Blatt“, 1958, no. 155, p. 16, fig. 2
  4. Pfister-Burghalter (1980), fig. 59
  5. Davis (1995), p. 201