Set in 1700s Amsterdam, this historical novel explores the life of entomologist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian’s daughter Dorothea Graff.

by Melissa Ashley
Affirm Press (Australia), September 2023
(via Kaplan/DeFiore Rights)

Credit: David Merrylees

Set in 1700s Amsterdam, The Naturalist of Amsterdam follows the life of Dorothea Graff, daughter of the famed artist and naturalist, Maria Sybilla Merian. From her early years within the confines of the Labadist community of Walter Schloss to her mother’s artist studio in Amsterdam and the wilds of South America, Dorothea’s story charts an amazingly rich and colourful period of discovery and explores the challenge of being the offspring of one of the most famous female artists in history. For as long as she can remember, Dorothea Graff has served her scientist-artist mother, Maria Sibylla Merian, in the family atelier with her older sister Hanna.
At just twenty years old, Dorothea decides to join her mother on a once in a lifetime expedition to the Dutch Colony of Suriname to observe and paint its insect and plant life. A commercial artist, businesswoman and printmaker, Maria has previously published illustrated volumes of her studies of European butterflies and plants, but entranced by displays of Suriname insects in the collections of Amsterdam’s rich burgher merchant-traders, Maria decides to travel to their source, where she will conduct studies in their habitat to feature them in a magnificent, hand-coloured publication.
All Maria and Dorothea’s savings have been ploughed into the expedition, which is fraught with danger and peril, but fame and greatness are never achieved without enormous sacrifice and suffering – The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname will one day make Maria world-famous.
asks the question: who are we really outside of our work, and given another chance at happiness, should we take it?

Melissa Ashley is a writer, poet, birder and academic who tutors in poetry and creative writing at the University of Queensland in Australia. Her first novel, The Birdman’s Wife, has been printed in three formats and sold more than 35,000 copies in Australia, and her follow-up novel The Bee and the Orange Tree was also a bestseller. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

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