Butterflies in Art

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 presents a brief survey of butterflies in art, starting with Egyptian art and including Renaissance art, Surrealism, and Damien Hirst.


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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 have 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 seen in the detail from this image at right below.

Nebamun hunting birds in the marshes, with a detail showing the butterflies included in the art

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. Dossi was a court painter for the Este Dukes of Ferrara and often painted with his brother Battista, who had worked under Raphael.

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.

Jupiter Painting Butterflies, Mercury and Virtue, by Dosso Dossi

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. A strong light source is coming from the upper right, casting shadows from the butterflies below them, as well as casting a long shadow from the stone-like wall behind them. Perhaps Dali is painting this captured moment simply as a sort of dream sequence. The landscape with distant horizon appears to be relatively empty other than this wall fragment and the butterflies.

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.

Landscape with Butterflies, 1956, by the surrealist painter Salvador Dali


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, with a detail of the artist standing in front of the piece, below right. This piece is from his "Kaleidoscope" series, and in the artist's own words, "references the spiritual symbolism of the butterfly, used by the Greeks to depict Psyche, the soul, and in Christian imagery to signify the resurrection."

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds, butterfly art by Damien Hirst

This work is one of the largest Damien Hirst "Kaleidoscope" paintings in existence, measuring approximately 7 x 17 feet, and it includes over 2,700 real butterflies. The title of the piece references a quote from the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who after detonating the first atomic bomb in 1945 said: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."

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.




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