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Motifs of the Revival: Butterfly

The beautiful butterfly in Arts & Crafts art.

Aesthetic ‘Butterfly Frieze’ reproduced by Mason & Wolf Wallpaper

Aesthetic ‘Butterfly Frieze’ after Bruce J. Talbert, reproduced by Mason & Wolf Wallpaper.

No mystery why butterflies and moths are depicted in the visual arts: what could be more beautiful than the brilliant color and pleasing symmetry of the wings, or the playful freedom of flight? Like ginkgo leaves, poppies, and dragonflies, butterflies are popular in Japanese art.
The Anglo–Japanese design craze of the late Victorian era introduced stylized butterflies in fabric and wallpaper designs, embroidery, wood carving, and metal casting.

The motif passed to the next generation. Butterflies are common in Art Nouveau design. (The spread-wing shape even lends itself to overall compositions, as with the mantelpiece shown at left.) During the Arts & Crafts period, the motif was often abstracted. Look for butterflies alone or in combination with flowers or vines, in repetitive designs or pictured singly.

Designers choose the insect for its inherent beauty, but there’s symbolism, too, of course. The ancient Greek word for “butterfly” is akin to psyche: soul or mind. Heart-shaped wings suggest love; the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly stands for transformation, and to come out of the cocoon means rebirth. My childhood friends and I would try to get a butterfly to land on us, for good luck.

‘Eucalyptus Butterfly’ filigree lantern

‘Eucalyptus Butterfly’ filigree lantern from the Cobblestone series by Old California Lantern Co.

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