Maria Sibylla Merian’s (2 April 1647 – 13 January 1717) image of a Murine Mouse Opossum (Marmosa murina, also known as Merian’s Opossum and Linnaeus’ Opossum) from Suriname is unusual in that it appears to be the only mammal she ever depicted in her work. Merian mainly focused on small fauna, most famously insects, and their associated flora; furthermore, this plate was even not originally included in her published work, but rather was inserted later. In Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science (2008), Ella Reitsma and Sandrine A. Ulenberg report it was one of a dozen found in Merian’s studio after her death and inserted into the posthumous 1719 edition of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, and suggest that her daughter Johanna may have had a hand in its composition. (It is also not clear where the accompanying text originated from; it may well have been cobbled together by the publisher based on notes left behind by Merian.)
Carl Hartman’s classic 1952 book Possums devotes a whole chapter to Merian’s opossum image, titled “A Butterfly Painter Starts a Legend.” In it, he analyzes its charming but incorrect depiction of how young are carried and traces its subsequent adoption into scientific literature. He notes this particular image and its little fiction of the babies’ tails all neatly wrapped around the mother’s erect tail was a case of “nature faking,” where artistic license apparently took precedence over scientific accuracy. Hartman traces how subsequent scientific works would nonetheless cite Merian’s opossum with its fanciful depiction and description left intact and repeated as fact, with Linnaeus himself quoting her text almost verbatim when formally describing the species. Iterations of Merian’s image can be found in natural history and zoological texts all through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even well into the twentieth centuries (and I would not be surprised to find it still popping up in contemporary texts – if you find one please let me know!). Sometimes Merian’s image would appear alongside a second case of mistaken opossum motherhood in the form of weird upright opossums, which were iterations of images of Albertus Seba’s (May 12, 1665 – May 2, 1736) taxidermy specimens published in 1735 in Vol. 1 of his Thesaurus (which I will write about in a future post!).
This continued circulation of Merian’s image thus perpetuated the mistaken notion that opossum litters really did ride around on their mother’s back in such an organized and secure fashion, rather than the more chaotic reality of babies just clinging on to wherever they can, as seen in the first photo below. (It should also be noted these little marsupials defy another common myth, as shown in the second photo – they are pouchless!)
Charlotte Sleigh’s The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art (2017) also presents Merian’s image, offering a feminist reading of its symbolism by suggesting that “traveling alone with her daughter in South America, perhaps she found the image comforting or even a proud emblem of self-sufficiency.” Could it have been that, as Sleigh suggests, Merian felt compelled to deviate from her usual subject matter and portray this particular mammal because of some affinity she felt with it as a strong, protective mother traveling through the forest with her own daughter? If she did wish to convey a more symbolic sense of opossum maternity, this could also help explain her choice to eschew a more scientifically accurate portrayal of how the babies rode on their mother in favor of dabbling in some “nature-faking” to produce a more idealized image of the relationship. Unfortunately, this possible context was lost as the image was lifted from its source and circulated as a proper scientific illustrations, leading to generations of misinformation about their true behavior.
 Ella Reitsma and Sandrine A. Ulenberg, Maria Sibylla Merian & Daughters: Women of Art and Science (Amsterdam: Rembrandt House Museum, 2008), 240.
This post is adapted from portions of my own work, Cross-cultural Currents and Syncretism in Early Modern Opossum Iconography, which you can find in its entirely here: https://digitalcommons.lindenwood.edu/theses/91/