April 02, 2006


The engraver Matthæus Merian was born in Basel in 1590: his forebears had worked as sawyers and timber-merchants in that city. Merian was first trained as a glass-engraver, but went on (in 1609-10) to study etching and copperplate-engraving in Zürich. From there he travelled to Strasbourg, and then to Nancy, where he worked on some of the elaborate plates printed in commemoration of the death of Charles III., duke of Lorraine. Merian spent the next few years (from 1612) in Paris, working for the engravers and print-sellers Claude de la Ruelle and Nicolas de Mathonière, among others. In 1615, he returned to his native city, and in that year published a major plan of Basel, a series of copies of the work of Jaques Bellange, and hunting scenes after designs by Antonio Tempesta.

Detail from 'Ver,' or 'Frühling;' (Spring), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1622.


Detail from 'Aestas,' or 'Sommer;' (Summer), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1622.

In 1616, Merian spent time in Stuttgart, where he illustrated a royal baptism of the house of Württemberg. From there, he travelled again, via Nuremberg and Augsburg, to Oppenheim, where he began a professional and personal involvement with the renowned engraver and publisher Johann Theodor de Bry, that was to shape the remainder of his working life. 1617 saw the publication by the house of de Bry of (among other works) Robert Fludd’s encyclopædic opus Utriusque cosmi historia and of Michael Maier’s extraordinary emblem-book Atalanta Fugiens: Merian contributed the engraved illustrations to both of these works. In the same year, Merian married Maria Magdalena de Bry, Johann Theodor’s daughter.

Detail from 'Auctumnus,' or 'Herbst;' (Autumn), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1622.


Detail from 'Hyems,' or 'Winter;' engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1622.

Merian continued working with his father-in-law until 1620, the family having meanwhile relocated their business to Frankfurt in 1619. The engraver spent the next few years back in Basel: the present images are details from two series of engravings he executed during these years. The first quartet of images (above) are from a set of Die vier jahreszeiten, ‘the four seasons,’ issued in 1622; while the second set of four images (below) illustrate Die vier tageszeiten, ‘the four times of day:’ this latter series having been published in 1624, after Merian moved, with his wife and infant son, back to Frankfurt, where he took over the family business in the wake of Johann Theodor’s death.

Detail from 'Aurora,' or 'Morgendämmerung;' (Dawn), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1624.


Detail from 'Dies,' or 'Mittag;' (Noon), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1624.

Merian cemented his position as head of the de Bry firm in 1626, when he became a citizen of Frankfurt. He established the firm ‘as one of Europe’s leading producers of topographical and historical work.’ His elder son Matthæus became a successful portrait painter, while his his younger son Caspar concentrated on engraving. Maria Magdalena died in 1645, and Merian afterwards remarried. His two daughters from his first marriage both went on to marry engravers, while his daughter from his second marriage, Maria Sibylla Merian, ‘became an outstanding painter of plants and insects, working in Holland and Surinam.’ Merian died in 1650, after which the younger Matthæus took over the business, which ‘remained under the family’s control until 1727.’

Detail from 'Vesper,' or 'Nachmittag;' (Evening), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1624.


Detail from 'Nox,' or 'Nacht;' (Night), engraving by Matthæus Merian, publ. 1624.

The present images are details of scans taken from the pages of vol. 1 of the catalogue raisonnée by Lucas Heinrich Wüthrich: Das druckgraphische Werk von Matthæus Merian d. Ae; published in Basel in 1966 (a second volume followed in 1972). Click on the details to see the engravings reproduced larger, and in full. For more of Merian’s work, see this wikimedia page.

Posted by misteraitch at April 2, 2006 08:45 AM

Thanks for a very interesting article about Merian. I am interested in engraving as I collect antique prints. I have made a web site about engraving history and techniques called Engraving Review its at http://www.engraving-review.com/

Posted by: Peter McConnell on April 4, 2006 06:12 AM

Thanks for this. It's another of those interesting sideline stories I did but pass by. I didn't realise there was such a substantial Merian dynasty.
That axe-wielding fellow on(?) the front of the horse drawn snow sled would likely have cleared the way ahead in more ways than 1.

Posted by: peacay on April 5, 2006 12:59 AM

I enjoyed this article and the engravings, with the wikipedia link as well--the "topographia" pictures look so much like outlandish dreams of mazes. The BibliOdyssey story of Maria Sibylla is so dramatic in its bones--a great story. I didn't know about that site. Thanks!

Posted by: marlyat2 on April 6, 2006 04:33 PM
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