Soul in Flight: paintings of butterflies to 1860

Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885), The Butterfly Catcher (c 1840), oil on panel, 31 × 25 cm, Museum Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Through the summer in the temperate and higher latitudes, butterflies are commonplace in the country, in some places forming swirling clouds of paper-thin wings. Although a great many paintings feature different types of bird, butterflies seem to have been painted less frequently. In this article and tomorrow’s, I look at a selection of paintings which feature butterflies in some form, the bigger the better.

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Pisanello (1395–1455), Portrait of a Princess (Ginevra d’Este) (1435-49), tempera on wood, 43 x 30 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Pisanello’s egg tempera Portrait of a Princess, showing Ginevra d’Este in 1435-49, surrounds her with flowers and four butterflies. The two on the left are Red Admirals, and one of the right is a Swallowtail, two of the larger and more spectacular species which are abundant in southern Europe.

Dosso Dossi (–1542), Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue (1524), oil on canvas, 111.3 x 150 cm, Zamek Królewski na Wawelu, Kraków, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Another early painting of butterflies is a bit more unusual. Dosso Dossi shows the senior of the Classical gods painting butterflies in a pseudo-Christian act of creation in his Jupiter, Mercury and Virtue from 1524. The underlying myth stems from a quarrel between Virtue and Fortune. Virtue has here brought her case to Jupiter, but he is busy painting the wings of butterflies, so Mercury tells her to wait before pleading with him.

Jupiter’s painting is so real, like that of Apelles, that as he completes each butterfly it takes life and flies off. Behind him is a rainbow providing the brilliant colours for his painting. It is thus an allegory of painting too.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500–1579), Vanitas (c 1535-40), media and dimensions not known, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The first ‘vanitas’ paintings started to appear in the early sixteenth century. These commonly include butterflies because of their association with the ephemeral. In Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Vanitas from about 1535-40, an androgynous angel with butterfly wings cradles a human skull with fragmentary Latin inscriptions. Those wings were modelled after the Swallowtail butterfly.

Artist not known, Follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Christ among the Doctors (c 1545), oil on oak panel, 77.5 x 60.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

A few years later, an anonymous follower of Hieronymus Bosch painted Christ among the Doctors (c 1545), with a large butterfly settled in the foreground. This might have been a reference to ‘vanitas’ paintings, or the artist’s signature device.

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638), The Fall of the Titans (1588-90), oil on canvas, 239 x 307, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Cornelis van Haarlem’s The Fall of the Titans from 1588-90 is another strange painting in which to find butterflies. This shows the classical myth in which the gods have defeated the Titans, who preceded them. As a result the Titans fell from the heavens and were imprisoned in Tartarus, or Hell, as shown here. It’s claimed that flying insects, even butterflies, were associated with the fire of the underworld, although the two butterflies and one dragonfly appear quite incongruous, at least to the modern eye.

Nicolaes de Vree (1645–1702), A Forest Floor Still Life with Flowering Plants and Butterflies (date not known), oil on canvas, 112 x 88.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

For their familiarity, bright colours, and natural beauty, butterflies were popular in the Dutch Golden Age, particularly in smaller paintings such as still lifes destined for the collector’s cabinet. Nicolaes de Vree’s undated A Forest Floor Still Life with Flowering Plants and Butterflies from the latter half of the seventeenth century is a fine example of a painting which goes beyond the normal still life and depicts a more natural scene.

Jan van Os (1744–1808), Flowers (c 1780), oil on wood panel, 70.5 x 61 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan van Os’s Flowers from about 1780 is a much later example, featuring a Peacock, Swallowtail and Red Admiral. Each would have been painted from a dead specimen in a collection; collections became popular as the Age of Enlightenment encouraged the better-educated to take an active interest in developing sciences such as entomology.

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Johann Amandus Winck (1748–1817), Flowers and Fruits on a Stone Ledge with Butterflies and Mice (1804), oil on cradled panel, 31.1 x 45.7 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted in 1804, Johann Amandus Winck’s magnificent still life of Flowers and Fruits on a Stone Ledge with Butterflies and Mice makes good use of two butterflies, a housefly (perhaps in a ‘vanitas’ reference), a mouse and a snail.

Carl Spitzweg (1808–1885), The Butterfly Catcher (c 1840), oil on panel, 31 × 25 cm, Museum Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

By the early nineteenth century, Europeans were travelling overseas to look for exciting new species of butterfly. Carl Spitzweg’s The Butterfly Catcher from about 1840 shows every hunter’s dream: discovering the largest, most spectacular butterflies ever seen. Compare the size of the hunter’s net with the unrealistically large butterflies in the foreground.

Our English Coasts, 1852 ('Strayed Sheep') 1852 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Our English Coasts, 1852 (Strayed Sheep) (1852), oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Art Fund 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

For William Holman Hunt, in his Our English Coasts, 1852, native species of butterfly were a symbol of the British countryside. Composed from several passages from different motifs, it was assembled in a similar way to the Pre-Raphaelites’ figurative works. Hunt went to great lengths to work from nature: the Peacock butterflies at the lower left were one of the last details to be completed, and were painted from a single live specimen which the artist examined indoors after the rest of the painting was all but complete.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8), oil on canvas, 61 x 75.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly afterwards, Richard Dadd, painting during his confinement in London’s Bethlem hospital for the mentally ill, extended the still life tradition in one of his few oil paintings, of Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854-8). This develops his early faerie paintings into a new and unique style, and was painted for the hospital’s first resident Physician-Superintendent, William Charles Hood.

Its theme takes Dadd back to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there’s hardly a square millimetre of canvas into which Dadd hasn’t squeezed yet another curious detail. Like other great imaginative painters (Bosch, for instance) before, Dadd’s dense details dart about in scale: there are tiny figures next to huge leaves and butterflies, and towards the top of the tondo these distortions of scale generate an exaggerated feeling of perspective.

The contradiction of the title refers to the battle of wills between Oberon and Titania, and the conflict here centres on an Indian boy. Titania (inevitably somewhat masculine) stands just to the right of centre, the boy bearing her skirts. To the left of centre is the bearded figure of Oberon, an elfin lad holding him back by his right arm.

At the right are Helena and Demetrius, despite Helena’s efforts, their love remaining unrequited.

Beyond those central figures is an overwhelming mass of detail, miniature scenes and stories involving hundreds of extras, flowers (including the ‘Morning Glory’ convulvulus at the feet of Titania), leaves, an ornate Swallowtail butterfly, a floating jade egg, fungi, and far more. Descriptors like hallucinatory and surreal spring to mind, and have been used in accounts of this remarkable painting.

Tomorrow I’ll look at a second golden age of butterflies in paintings, in the late nineteenth century.