Lepidoptera in art

Lepidoptera have captured our imaginations since the dawn of time and have subsequently been ever present in our artwork. Here are five artists who we think capture the essence of our whimsical six legged friends.

Derived from the ancient Greek λεπίδος (lepídos) meaning ‘scale’ and πτερά (pterá) meaning 'wings', Lepidoptera is the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. 

From Blanche Dubois to Buffalo Bill, butterflies and moths are used as symbols of metamorphosis, fragility, freedom and life after death. They have long been synonymous with the human spirit - the Ancient Greek word for soul and butterfly being the same (psyche) - and in 17th-century Ireland an edict was issued forbidding the killing of white butterflies as they were believed to be the souls of children. Lepidoptera have captured our imaginations since the dawn of time and have subsequently been ever present in our artwork. 

Here are five artists who we think capture the essence of our whimsical six legged friends.

Salvador Dali 
Dali’s work is rife with metaphors and symbolism. He was known to use insects to inject different meanings into his work; ants represented death, decay and the potential for destruction. Flies symbolise disgust and in other cases the Catalan people. Grasshoppers symbolise fear and horror as the artist was afraid of them. We presume butterflies to mean freedom and transformation. 

Dali’s ‘Ship With Butterfly Sails’ was painted in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, depicting a Spanish galleon with sails made of butterflies, leaving port being blown by a strong easterly wind. The painting is no doubt meant to symbolise Spain's new political direction transformation to the fashistic francoist regime Dali was supportive of. 

Dali’s Colour Lithograph and Dry Point Etching print titled ‘Surrealist Portrait of Dalí Surrounded by Butterflies’ made in 1971, was created during a period of abandonment and estrangement from his wife and longtime muse Gala that worsened the artist's depression. This perhaps suggests the freedom and transformation butterflies represent is not always so positive.

Damien Hirst
Death being a central theme of most of Hirst’s work, it comes as no surprise that the artist has ventured into not just depicting butterflies but using them as a medium.

The artist’s first solo exhibition in London in 1991 titled ‘In and Out of Love’ consisted of a humid room, butterfly pupae glued to canvases, sugar water fruit and flowers on a table and boxes with holes in them. The installation was designed to encapsulate the circle of life, the butterflies hatch, feed, mate, lay eggs and die. 

Later in his career, despite never abandoning his muse, Hirst began using butterflies' wings, creating huge circular kaleidoscopic and mandala-esque pieces. The controversial pieces use butterfly wings arranged in repetitive patterns. For Hirst the main attraction to butterflies is the appearance of life that they retain in death, this is why he views them as a symbol of life and beauty.

Katsushika Hokusai, the preeminent Edo period ukiyo-e painter and printmaker used butterflies in his woodblock prints. In his 1830 colour woodblock print ‘Peonies and Butterfly’, four peony flowers, a symbol of bravery and good fortune, are blown by a strong wind as a butterfly, it’s wings bent, struggles against it, unable to land or fly. Perhaps the scene represents the impossibility of real transformation without bravery. 

Hokusai also depicted two butterflies in an earlier colour woodblock ‘A Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies’ 1809-1819. The use of the winged insect in this print shows us how they were appreciated by people across Japan and not just by the artist, the philosopher longingly stares at the dance as he ponders the mysteries of the universe; a perfect analogy of the Japanese psyche’s profound connection to nature.

Vincent Van Gogh 
Vincent Van Gogh painted butterflies and moths frequently; used as symbols of hope. He believed that just like a caterpillar unaware of its future life as a butterfly, we too cannot comprehend our potential for metamorphosis. This is something Van Gogh felt deeply and is to have remarked of ‘fallen women’ "She is seeking, seeking, seeking -- does she herself know what? Might she be transformed one day like a grub into a butterfly?" This is most likely the school of thought that led him to living with and supporting a prostitute known as Sein Hoornick and her children for a period of time in The Hague. 

The bold strokes and dusky yet vibrant hues of his work titled ‘Green Peacock Moth’ encapsulates the crepuscular scene. The Moth perched amongst a group of lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum), a plant that's flower has been likened to copulation. The combination of the eerie colour pallete of the moth and the Arum maculatum’s fatally poisonous berries in vivid red gives the viewer a macabre sense and the connotations of joy and freedom seem a distant memory. 

Hieronymus Bosch
Butterflies' unpredictable flight, vibrant wings and metamorphosis aren’t always interpreted as positive or pure connotations. In the right hand panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’ we see a vision of hell, within the scene two demons are depicted with wings of butterflies, a small tortoiseshell and a meadow brown; the common name for the meadow brown being Maniola meaning ‘little departed soul’. This dark association wasn’t due to the lone machinations of Bosch but to the general consensus of butterflies in the early 1500’s. Maybe the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly was too close for comfort to the biblical transformation of Lucifer, the angel and his fall from heaven. They have long since endured underworld connotations, some old Dutch masters seeing the Red Admiral butterfly as the butterfly from hell, the earthly embodiment of temptation and sin. 

Peasants believed a Red Admiral population boom in Russia foreshadowed the Tzar Alexander II assaination with their bloody wings and the numbers 1881 (the year of both the boom and assaination) visible on the underwing. Obviously in 1881 Russia wasn’t so far away from one of the largest and most significant political transformations in modern history. Perhaps we should heed the warnings of these winged insects and pay a little more attention to their appearance in our lives. 

If you’re not much of a genre person but instead more attracted to a particular motif or theme in art like the lepidoptera discussed here, get in touch with a specialist today and browse our exhibitions and collections for what piques your interest. 

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