The greek word for butterfly and soul are identical : psyche. It is not surprising though that the goddess Psyche was portrayed with butterfly wings. She had a relationship with cupido, also a winged creature. They were immortalized by William Adolphe Bouguereau in 1895.
Le Ravissement de Psyche (The Rapture of Psyche), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1895
Apart from Roman/Greek mythology, butterfly wings were also transposed on more contemporary creatures : fairies. In the Victorian era fairies were a popular theme for painters. The Spanish Luis Ricardo Falero, like Bouguereau, primarily used them to explore the theme of the female nude.
The butterfly, Luis Ricardo Falero, 1893
The study of butterflies (lepidopterology) was a popular activity in the 19th century. Leisure time became available for the middle class and there was a profound interest for natural phenomena. One of the most striking paintings about butterfly hunting was made by Carl Spitzweg. He portrays a fully equipped butterfly hunter in a tropical forest who is suddenly confronted with two huge blue butterflies. His butterfly catching net is hilariously small in comparison to the blue butterflies and the hunter is frozen to the ground with his mouth wide open.
The butterfly hunter, Carl Spitzweg, 1840
The blue colour of the giant butterfly is not fictional. Some of the greatest butterflies known on this planet are blue indeed. The morpho butterfly inhabiting the forests of South America, has various shades of blue. Martin Johnson Heade, famous for his paintings of hummingbirds, also depicted this blue miracle butterfly. The colour of this butterfly is not due to pigment but due to a specialised light reflection on the wings, in which only blue wavelenghts are reflected.
Blue Morpho Butterfly, Martin Johnson Heade, c 1864-65
Berthe Morisot chose the butterfly hunting theme in 1874. Still in her early impressionistic style, we see a typical 19th century lady with her children in a garden, chasing butterflies. No killing jar or other equipment, this is not a scientist completing her collection but someone enjoying a lazy afternoon in the garden.
The butterfly hunt, Berthe Morisot, 1874
Also WInslow Homer, maybe influenced by his visit to France, changed his subject choice from war themes to more romantic themes. Butterfly hunting was one of them, as this beautiful painting illustrates.
Butterflies, Winslow Homer, 1878
Vincent van Gogh was always inspired by nature. He did several paintings of butterflies and moths among which this colourful painting : poppies and butterflies. He painted it during his voluntary stay in the asylum in Saint Remy in 1890. Sadly his own mental health was declining and he performed suicide a few months after this painting.
Vincent van Gogh, Poppies and Butterflies, 1890
We end this guided tour with a cheeky homage from the Danish Carl Bloch. In his series of the life of Christ, appearing on the wall of the oratory of Frederiksborg Castle and also featuring in the story of the Bible, there is a tiny detail in his painting of the sermon on the mount. In contrast with all the adults who are concentrated on the words of Jesus, there is a little boy who is captured by a butterfly that landed on the head of a lady nearby.