Ask a Badass

Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.

Maria Sibylla Merian

The Artistic Entomologist answers:


Maria Sibylla Merian

Dear Badass,

I launched my own business at the beginning of this year, to be my own boss, to be creative, to work as hard as possible for myself. But business hasn’t picked up the way I hoped, and my motivation, enthusiasm, and funds are starting to dwindle. Maybe I am not made for this. And then, I have recently been offered two different jobs, both full of stability, paychecks, and benefits, but my heart sinks at the idea of returning to an office, of admitting defeat, of doing it “for the money”. My heart says one thing but my almost-40 brain says: do the other responsible thing. What do I do?



Dear Torn,

I must congratulate you. To start a business is no small thing, in any time or place. I did so myself in an Amsterdam that was awhirl with new arrivals like myself trying to make our way amidst a sea of new wealth. I was a woman in a time that believed women should tend the home, not an artist’s studio. My only assets were my daughters and my skill. Maybe I should have been more afraid, but every step I’d taken away from a conventional life had given me more than I’d lost.

17th-century women were supposed to be wives and mothers. I do not know if my mother wanted more for me when she encouraged my stepfather to train me as an artist or if she was trying to redirect me away from bugs. I was fascinated, you see. Their colors, their changes, the mystery of where they came from and how they grew. I used my stepfather’s techniques to capture their image.

It got me through the long years of my marriage, but it left me outside convention in another way. There were artists who painted in great detail. There were men who studied bugs in great detail. But who would paint a bug like a flower and use the paintings to show their lifecycles and food? Me. In several volumes.

Maybe that was what gave me the push for my next step. I took my daughters and widowed mother to join my half-brother in a religious colony in Friesland. It was a beautiful time, living with others who believed that our Christian faith required us to care for each other and seek God inward. It was hard to leave its tranquility for a bustling city, but I felt I must.

It was in Amsterdam that I found my greatest risk and largest reward. Through members of our faith, I found the opportunity to travel across the world to observe unknown insects in an unpathed jungle. I was 52 and Suriname was months away by boat. I used all my resources to get there and was gambling on making a success when I got back.

The book I made of the insects of Suriname was beautiful and well-loved. It didn’t sell enough. I had to sell some of my collection of preserved insects, turning myself into a broker of curiosities. I’m not sure that mattered. I had seen wonders and shared them with beauty. I had gone farther than any girl in the town I grew up in, and I had lived the second half of my life on my own terms.

You feel that to take an office job is a defeat. I must admit this idea astounds me. Supporting yourself by any means is a success. Living by your labor is a luxury that women in my time were mostly denied. I was supposed to stay married to that horrible man to have food and shelter for my children. As terrifying as the risks I took were, I reveled in the fact that I could support myself.

I do not know if your business will support you. Only time, luck, and your efforts will tell that. When you find yourself losing your will, stop to truly look at your work. When I looked at my drawings and notes of the insects I studied, it revived my spirits and my years seemed to fall from my shoulders. I hope that you have chosen something that does that for you.

Whether it continues to inspire you or you choose to pursue a more stable job, the risk you took will have been worth it. We cannot always tell where our daring may lead us. The caterpillar knows not what will emerge from its chrysalis, only that it must change. I pray that when your wings emerge, your joy in their colors will overshadow all the worry and work it took to find them.

Maria Sibylla Merian

About Maria Sibylla Merian

Illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian
Illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian

Born April 2, 1647, in Frankfurt to artist Matthäus Merian and pastor’s daughter Johanna Sibylla Heim. Died on January 13, 1717, in Amsterdam of illness after a stroke. Maria Sibylla Merian was an entomologist and artist who shared many new discoveries about insects at a time when people thought they were created by mud or rotting meat. She was the first to picture the insects at various stages of their lifecycle next to the plants they ate. Linnaeus used her images to make his taxonomy and both her beautiful book about Suriname, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, and the plates from it are in museums and private collections today.

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