In the first of these two articles looking at paintings of butterflies, I showed some examples spanning around 1435 to almost 1860. This article concludes by looking at paintings of the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth.
One of the few paintings that I have seen which captures my experience of dense clouds of butterflies is Gustave Doré’s Summer from about 1860-70. Set in what appears to be an upland or alpine meadow, its butterflies look like large flowers which have taken to the air.
In Charles Edward Perugini’s undated Ephemeral Joy, a young woman who has been picking flowers in a garden pauses with a Brimstone butterfly on the back of her hand. This species was seen as quintessentially British, although widespread throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa.
Winslow Homer’s Butterflies from 1878 shows a young woman hunting Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies with her net. This is a species of swallowtail which is widespread in the eastern USA, and related to the Old World Swallowtail found across Europe. She is carrying a box in which to place her specimens, in which they’d be killed, ready to mount in a glass cabinet. Collecting butterflies was considered sufficiently ladylike, because of their beauty. Less aesthetically satisfying insects such as beetles were left to male entomologists.
Sophie Anderson entered the faerie painting sub-genre with Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things from 1880. The title is taken from some verse allegedly by Charles Ede, but the only literary person of that name who I can identify was born long after this work was painted. Not only are there butterflies adorning this fairy’s hair, but she also appears to have butterfly wings.
Edward Poynter’s painting of Psyche in the Temple of Love from 1882 tells a story from classical mythology which has been painted with butterflies on several occasions. Cupid has fallen in love with Psyche, and takes her to the Temple of Love, where he visits her each night, but never in daylight. Here Psyche is whiling away the daytime, holding a sprig out to attract her attribute, a butterfly, here the rather common and prosaic Small White. However, Psyche’s enemy Venus is not far away, as shown by the doves in the temple behind her.
Although numerous paintings of butterflies had been made from dead specimens, some of the earliest to attempt to show them in realistic environments appeared in the late nineteenth century, thanks to new wildlife artists like the masterly Bruno Liljefors. Redstarts and Butterflies, from 1885, shows what the artist called ‘five studies in one frame’. Here he has combined five separate studies from nature into a single image, including this very dark Small Tortoiseshell butterfly, which is about to become a meal for one of the redstarts, which are insectivorous.
Late in his career, Vincent van Gogh painted the largest European species of moth, the Giant Peacock Moth, in 1889. Its wingspan can reach 20 cm (8 inches).
The following year, van Gogh painted Butterflies and Poppies (1890), which probably shows two Clouded Yellow butterflies, rather than Brimstones. This appears to have been painted on unprimed canvas.
The Japanese Western-style artist Fujishima Takeji 藤島武二 painted Butterflies in 1904, just before he travelled to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Like Doré’s painting above, this shows a dense cloud of butterflies gathered around flowers.
In the twentieth century, butterflies provided an opportunity for artistic invention to take flight. Odilon Redon’sButterflies, from around 1910, shows a highly imaginative collection of butterflies, flowers, plants, and rocks, which are often outlined to emphasise their form.
Finally, in Anastasiya Markovich’s recent Effect of Butterfly, its wings are breaking up into shreds of unreality.
Just as the butterfly’s life cycle continues from egg through caterpillar to pupa and then to the winged adult, art started in the unreality of mythology and vanitas, and has now returned in symbolism and the surreal.