"There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music." - George Eliot
We took some pictures of butterflies and think that we captured some beautiful images, but then it got us thinking: what's the role of butterflies in art history? What other artists have been inspired by their beauty and included them in their art work? Artsology will take a look at butterflies in art.
Let's go way back to start our investigation of butterflies in art. How about way back to 1350 BC, in Thebes, Egypt? That's what we've got here below, a tomb painting of Nebamun hunting in the marshes. Nebamun is shown in a boat with his wife and daughter, in the marshes surrounding a part of the Nile River, hunting birds of all kinds. Included with the vast swarm of birds are a number of butterflies as well, as seen in the detail from this image at right below.
Moving up to the Renaissance, we have here a painting by the Italian artist Dosso Dossi, titled Jupiter Painting Butterflies, Mercury and Virtue, circa 1522-24.
In this picture, the god Jupiter is painting butterflies on a canvas, but since he is a god, the simple act of painting them brings them to life. Meanwhile, Mercury is hushing the allegorical character "Virtue," so as not to interrupt Jupiter during his moment of creation, sending the message that creativity is even more important than having virtue. Dossi shows the ruler of Olympus as a mellow, relaxed painter who has put aside his thunderbolt because he would rather dream about rainbows and paint the wings of butterflies on his canvas. It's a whimsical view of the supreme deity of the ancient Romans.
Moving up to 1956, we encounter Salvador Dali's painting, Untitled (Landscape with Butterflies). This odd painting shows two butterflies hovering in what appears to be a desert environment. They look somewhat static, as if they are not even fluttering their wings. Perhaps it's simply a dream sequence which he captured on canvas.
In trying to research this painting, we see one reference to it being part of a private collection, which may explain the lack of information. However, there are countless websites selling this image as a poster, it seems to be a wildly popular image despite the fact that we don't know much about it.
One of the most astounding works of art featuring butterflies that we've seen is Damien Hirst's piece titled I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, from 2006, pictured below.
This piece measures 7 feet tall by 17 1/2 feet long, but the truly astonishing aspect of it is that it's completely covered with thousands of dead butterfly wings, resting in red household gloss paint, as can be seen in the detail at left.
The background behind the title of the piece is also interesting, as it is a reference to the famous words of J. Robert Oppenheimer following the test detonation of the first atomic bomb. This piece seems like an explosion of color, a juggernaut of an art work that can overwhelm the viewer.
The use of butterfly imagery in art can also take on a symbolic role, due to the fact that in some old cultures, butterflies symbolize rebirth into a new life after being inside a cocoon for a period of time. The butterfly has long been a Christian symbol of resurrection, for it disappears into a cocoon as a caterpillar and appears dead, but emerges later as a far more beautiful butterfly.
At the top of this page, we mentioned the fact that we had some of our own pictures of butterflies that we thought were interesting ... still want to see them? Here's our Butterfly photography page.