Anna Waser and Maria Sibylla Merian are among the foremost artists of the Baroque period. Illustrations from Johann Caspar Füssli's compendium of the best artists in Switzerland from 1769–1779.
Anna Waser and Maria Sibylla Merian are among the foremost artists of the Baroque period. Illustrations from Johann Caspar Füssli's compendium of the best artists in Switzerland from 1769–1779. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Waser and Merian – two trailblazing female artists of the Baroque era

The Baroque period saw increasing numbers of female artists begin to question the social structures of the age. The stories of Anna Waser and Maria Sibylla Merian demonstrate how these female artists fully bore comparison with their male contemporaries.

Michèle Seehafer

Michèle Seehafer

Michèle Seehafer is an art historian and currently postdoctoral fellow at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and at the Museum of National History in Denmark.

The first history of art in Switzerland was written in the mid-18th century by Swiss painter and art historian Johan Caspar Füssli. He compiled information on the country's major artists, but in this male-dominated pantheon gave independent entries to only two women. They were Anna Waser (1678–1714) and Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717). Füssli was astonishingly critical as he reflected on the underrepresentation of female artists in his introduction on Waser. It seems downright feminist to today's reader: “If the female sex just had the opportunity to train and to demonstrate its talent, and if it were able to enjoy the same benefits of education as the male, the history of art would have far more examples of outstanding female artists than is presently the case.” Füssli was himself the father of two artistically gifted daughters. What he emphasises here is something absolutely fundamental: the problem of development opportunities for women at the time. This often meant that female artists were undervalued compared with their male counterparts. While women were very much considered pillars of society in the Baroque period, they were commonly denied recognition and access to education. In the course of the 17th century talented women began to free themselves in growing numbers from these social constructs. Increasingly, they were accepted into painters’ guilds and academic circles, appointed court artists, or made new breakthroughs with their own research.
Self-portrait of Anna Waser drawn with silverpoint, 1706.
Self-portrait of Anna Waser drawn with silverpoint, 1706. Swiss National Museum

Anna Waser – from Werner's pupil to court painter

In his profile, Johann Caspar Füssli placed Anna Waser of Zurich on a par with internationally renowned artists such as Marietta Robusti and Sofonisba Anguissola from Italy, or Rachel Ruysch from the Netherlands. In doing so he inscribed her in the canon of art history. As was often the case at the time, Waser's talent was first recognised by her father. Alongside her education as an artist he encouraged her to learn foreign languages and mathematics, and gave her calligraphy exercises to train her hand. She received her first painting lessons from Johann Georg Sulzer, who she also captured in her earliest self-portrait, produced in 1691 when she was just 12.
Anna Waser's Self-portrait at the age of 12, painting the likeness of her teacher Johannes Sulzer, 1691.
The young painter, showing off her skill with her brushes and palette, meets the observer with a direct and confident, almost proud, gaze. Anna Waser's Self-portrait at the age of 12, painting the likeness of her teacher Johannes Sulzer, 1691. Kunsthaus Zürich
Waser then joined the drawing school run by the well-known Bern artist Joseph Werner, the only woman known to have done so. According to Füssli, Waser applied with a reproduction of Werner's illustration of Flora, the ancient goddess of flowers. As an artist she identified with the figure of Flora, as another of her works would show just a few years later. In 1697 Waser immortalised herself with her own interpretation of the goddess in the family album of her cousin, famous Zurich physician and natural scientist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer. With her hair artfully adorned with flowers and her head inclined down to her right, the self-portrait showcases both her enormous talent for drawing and her feel for detail.
Waser wrote in French: “These few strokes are intended to convey to the famous owner of this book the greetings of his cousin.” Self-portrait of Anna Waser, 1697.
Waser wrote in French: “These few strokes are intended to convey to the famous owner of this book the greetings of his cousin.” Self-portrait of Anna Waser, 1697. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Anna Waser became known beyond the Swiss Confederation as an outstanding portraitist und miniaturist. In 1700 she went to work for a time as court painter to Count Wilhelm Moritz of Solms-Braunfels, making her the only female Swiss artist to hold a court position during the Baroque period. Back in Zurich, she was commissioned by Johann Jakob Scheuchzer to paint a number of landscapes, some of which were used to illustrate his accounts of his travels into the Alps, Ouresiphoites Helveticus, sive, itinera per Helvetiae alpinas. Supported by funding from the Royal Academy in London, the publication was one of Scheuchzer’s principal works. When it was issued, he was careful to ensure that the artistic contributions of his younger cousin were duly acknowledged. Indeed, John Thorpe, who was responsible for printing the book, referred to her in a letter to Scheuchzer as “the most Ingenious Madame Anne Waser”.
The Devil's Bridge is pictured in barren, craggy surroundings. Illustration from Johann Jakob Scheuchzer’s Ouresiphoites Helveticus, sive, itinera per Helvetiae alpinas […], 1723.
Waser offers an illusionist rendering of Switzerland's Alpine landscape. The Devil's Bridge is pictured in barren, craggy surroundings. Illustration from Johann Jakob Scheuchzer’s Ouresiphoites Helveticus, sive, itinera per Helvetiae alpinas […], 1723. ETH Library, Zurich
Anna Waser integrated herself into the male-dominated Swiss art scene and maintained a lively dialogue with colleagues such as Wilhelm Stettler, Felix Meyer and Johannes Dünz. Her friends included Maria Clara Eimmart (1676–1707) of Nuremberg, who was also educated by her father as an artist and astronomer. Eimmart became known primarily for over 350 drawings of the phases of the moon.
Like Waser, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer also corresponded with Maria Clara Eimmart. Her drawing of half of the moon in Scheuchzer's family album reveals Eimmart's forensic view of its surface, 1695.
Like Waser, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer also corresponded with Maria Clara Eimmart. Her drawing of half of the moon in Scheuchzer's family album reveals Eimmart's forensic view of its surface, 1695. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Maria Sibylla Merian – the study of nature and its metamorphoses

Perhaps the most important female artist to commit herself not just to painting but to natural science during the Baroque period was Maria Sibylla Merian. Her father, Matthäus Merian the Elder, died early, meaning that it was her stepfather Jacob Marrel who trained her as a flower and still life painter. She studied nature from a young age, and was particularly fascinated by insects. Füssli writes: “Her inquiring eye saw beyond these discoveries. She went further, and became fully absorbed in this field of the natural sciences. Her noble thinking heart was eager to turn her efforts to good use and to share them with the world [...]”. She captured the findings of her systematic research in delicately detailed drawings, which served as a basis for her printed works.
Maria Sibylla Merian's Vermes Miraculosi, from her Caterpillar Book, 1679.
Merian's pictures stood out from other contemporary illustrations of insects because she showed the different stages in the animals’ development. Maria Sibylla Merian's Vermes Miraculosi, from her Caterpillar Book, 1679. Goethe University, Frankfurt-am-Main
Merian always examined the plants that were food to the animals she studied in Suriname, and reproduced them in detail in her work, 1705.
Merian always examined the plants that were food to the animals she studied in Suriname, and reproduced them in detail in her work, 1705. Basel University Library
As both an artist and an entomologist, Merian achieved great fame with her principal work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, in which she showed insects in their natural surroundings. It was the product of a trip Merian took in 1699 with her daughter to the Dutch colony of Suriname, in South America. The enterprise stands as evidence of Merian as a truly courageous woman who forged her own path in life. Like no other woman of this period, Merian understood how to network far and wide, and how to gain a foothold in the male-dominated academic world. To pay the bills, when she returned from Suriname she added stuffed animals that she had brought back from her travels to the range of pigments and books she sold in her Amsterdam shop.

An emerging path, but a long and rocky road

Like so many female artists of the Baroque period, neither Waser nor Merian was granted membership of a painter's guild or academy. It wasn't until some 50 years after their death that a female Swiss artist was recognised in this way. In 1768 Angelika Kaufmann (1741–1807) of Chur became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, alongside still life painter Mary Moser. They were to remain its only female members for almost 200 years. Art in Switzerland also remained male-dominated for a long time. What was then the Society of Swiss Painters, Sculptors and Architects did not begin admitting female artists as members until 1972. Today, women such as Pipilotti Rist and Sylvie Fleury are front and centre in the Swiss art world. High time, then, for the spotlight to shine on the female artists of the Baroque.

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