The scale and subject matter of this drawing suggest that it was either drawn while Merian was in Surinam in 1699-1701, or was based on sketches made during that period. A very similar drawing of a Surinam lizard, which measures 13 x 17 in. (329 x 430 mm.) and which is closely related to plate 70 from the second edition of Merian's Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, published in 1719, was sold at Sotheby's, London, 7 July 1999, lot 37. Although the present drawing does not relate specifically to one of the illustrations in the Metamorphosis... the composition is very close to plate 69 from the 1719 edition, which shows a crocodile fighting a snake (fig. 1).
Maria Sibylla Merian was one of the more extraordinary natural history painters active in Northern Europe in the period. A ground-breaking naturalist and taxonomist, businessperson and traveller, her drawings also show a strong aesthetic sense, a profile made all the more remarkable given the obstacles placed before a woman intent on following such a route in the early 18th Century. She travelled to Surinam in June 1699 with no official commission or support, and accompanied only by her younger daughter Dorothea Maria. The journey resulted in a large number of studies and finished bodycolors on vellum, many of which are now in the Archives of the Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg (K. Wettengl, ed., Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717, Artist and Naturalist, Frankfurt, 1998, nos. 127-146). The first edition of the Metamorphosis... was published in 1705, with explanatory texts by Caspar Commelin, Director of the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens. The subjects of the sixty plates, as the title suggested, was principally with the insect life of South America. An expanded edition was published in 1719, including the illustrations of a crocodile and a lizard mentioned above, but the second volume, promised in the introduction to the 1705 edition and which was to have expanded the subjects to snakes, lizards and other reptiles, did not appear. It seems reasonable to suppose that the present drawing might have been drawn in preparation for that second volume. The subjects need not have been planned by Merian while in Surinam, as she brought back to Amsterdam quantities of natural history specimens with which to continue her studies. Her entrepreneurial instincts were also finely tuned: a letter written from Amsterdam in October 1702 records her negotiations with a gentleman collector for the sale of '34 animals in liquid, listed as follows, which cost 20 f[lorins] for the lot: 1 crocodile, 2 large snakes, 18 of the same, small, 11 iguanas, 1 gecko, 1 small turtle...' (K. Wettengl, ed., op. cit., p. 265).