A brief, fluttering history of butterflies in art, from symbols of regeneration to memories of the fleetingness of life

“Everyone is afraid of glass, everyone is afraid of sharks, everyone likes butterflies,” said Damien Hirst, explaining his frequent incorporation of the elegant winged creatures into his compositions.

Butterflies appeared early in Hirst’s career, with his work In and out of love (1991), who invited viewers to witness the fleeting beauty of butterflies’ lives by seeing them emerge from cocoons, live, and die over the course of the exhibition.

Later, in his work I have become death, shatter of worlds (2006) the artist incorporated nearly 3,000 sets of butterfly wings into a kaleidoscopic image.

While Hirst is arguably the most famous contemporary artist to use butterflies in his work, the insect’s symbolic meaning dates back to ancient times. She have been used as vivid symbols of death and resurrection, the fleeting nature of beauty, and even as symbols of marriage in cultures around the world.

Memento Moric

Maria van Oosterwijck, flower still life (1669). Courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Butterflies, with their colorful and intricate wings and their oh-so-short lifespan, lasting just a few weeks between spring and early summer, have understandably come to symbolize the transience of life.

The Dutch Golden Age painter, Maria van Oosterwyck, was famous for vanitas paintings, which remind the viewer of the transience of worldly luxury and the eternal nature of the soul.

Adriaen Coorte, Three Medlars with a Butterfly (c. 1705)

Adrian Coorte, Three Medlars with a Butterfly (circa 1705)

Oosterwyck was also famous for her frequent inclusion of Red Admirals in her major paintings. Scholars believe that these butterflies were her own unique symbol of the resurrection of Christ and the promise of eternal life. The metamorphosis of a caterpillar in a cocoon, which emerges as a butterfly, symbolically reflects the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Here the red and white of the butterfly wings symbolized the bodily sacrifice of Christ and white the Holy Spirit. Oosterwyck was not the only artist to favor butterflies during the Dutch Golden Age: contemporary still life painters, including Adriaen Coorte and Rachel Ruysch, were also known for their lavish depictions of butterflies.

Global Botanical Wonders

Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple (Ananas comosus) showing the life cycle of a Dido Longwing butterfly (Philaethria dido).  Collection of the Royal Trust.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Pineapple (Ananas comosus) showing the life cycle of a Dido Longwing Butterfly (Philaethria dido). Collection of the Royal Trust.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, amid the heights of European colonialism, artists and naturalists around the world set out in search of the flora and fauna of hitherto free areas. Many of these images, while ostensibly scientific, are based on the artistic tastes and cultural beliefs of the artists’ homelands – which is certainly the case when it comes to their depictions of butterflies.

Just as when still life artists incorporated butterflies floating around bouquets of flowers, naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian also incorporated the insects into her illustrations of the flora she discovered while traveling through Suriname in 1699. Her illustrations became popular in Metamorphosis of Surinamese insectsa coveted book that brought the splendor of the Surinamese natural landscape to Europe, including many new species of moths and butterflies.

Symbols of femininity and marriage

Katsushika Hokusai, peonies and butterfly (1833-1834).  Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Katsushika Hokusai, Peonies and Butterfly (1833-1834). Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

In Japan, the butterfly has a rich symbolic history, appearing on family coats of arms, in origami, on kimono designs and in ukiyo-e woodcuts from the Edo era. A symbol of the transition from girl to woman, butterflies are also connected with many aspects of female ritual and experience.

Yanagawa Shigenobu I, two dancers in butterfly costumes (1820s).  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Yanagawa Shigenobu I, Two dancers in butterfly costumes (about 1820). Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art of origami originated in Japan in the 17th century; by 1680, the poet Ihara Saikaku famously wrote of a dream of paper butterflies. In Japanese wedding ceremonies, there are two types of origami butterflies, called mecho (symbolizes the female) and eight (symbolizing the male) are symbolically placed on sake bottles.

While paintings of butterflies date back nearly a thousand years in Japan, butterflies became a particularly popular subject for the ukiyo-e woodcuts in images detailing the intimate lives of courtesans and performers. Depictions of butterflies were created by famous Edo artists, including Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige and Yanagawa Shiganobu, who often depicted dancers in butterfly costumes. One of the most famous of these images was Katsushika Hokusai’s peonies and butterfly, of which Claude Monet owned a print, which he kept with him in Giverny.

Harbingers of change

Thomas Gainsborough, The Painter's Daughters Hunt Butterflies (1756).  Collection of the National Gallery.

Thomas Gainsborough, The painter’s daughters are chasing butterflies (1756). Collection of the National Gallery.

The fragility and beauty of butterflies – as well as their natural habitats – have led to more recent symbolic use of the insects in art. As early as the end of the 18th century, artists reflected on the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, both for the environment and for existing lifestyles. Thomas Gainsborough’s painting The painter’s daughters are chasing a butterfly (1756) depicts the artist’s two young daughters chasing a butterfly resting on a spiky thistle. The butterfly here is a harbinger of approaching danger and at the same time acts as a symbol of hope, embodied in the promise of the young girls.

In later Impressionist paintings, including those by Seurat A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte, butterflies can be seen hovering around scenes of middle-class leisure — leisure itself made possible by the industrial revolution. Believe it or not, the Peppery moth’s sooty wings are an adaptation of the pollution during the industrial revolution in England.

An emblem of metamorphosis

Jacques-Louis David, Cupid and Psyche (1817).  Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Jacques-Louis David, Cupid and Psyche (1817). Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the butterfly was first associated with the transcendence of the soul. This belief was further shaped by the ancient Greeks, who quite literally confirmed the association.

In Greek, psyche is the word for both butterfly and soul, and images of the goddess of the same name often include butterflies for this reason.

Vincent van Gogh, Large Peacock Butterfly (May 1889).

Vincent van Gogh, large peacock moth (May 1889).

These ancient cultures underlined the transcendent aspects of a butterfly’s existence. This association has intrigued artists in modern times. For example, the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon included butterflies, along with shells and flowers as natural objects that could inspire the sense of wonder and otherworldliness that art could arouse. Van Gogh devoted an entire series to butterflies, seeing in them the promise of the ability of men and women to change their lives and the existence of a better reality ahead.

In perhaps the most profound example, Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Thorn Collar and Hummingbird (1940) presents the artist crowned by butterflies. The blue wings rest delicately on her hair. This halo of butterflies has been interpreted by scholars as symbolic of Kahlo’s own rebirth after a bus accident that nearly killed her in her youth. Butterflies in this case also suggest the possibility of a near resurrection.

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