5. 3. 2014, 6pm, Ellery Foutch, Courtauld: Butterfly Mania: Preserving the Perfect State

Venue: UCL, Department of History of Art, Gordon Square no. 20, London WC1E 6BT, room 3/4

Ellery Foutch (Art Historian, Courtauld) will talk about how throughout his life, Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885) was obsessed with butterflies, ultimately creating thousands of drawings, lithographs, oil paintings, and over a hundred butterfly boxes bound in leather and marbled paper, their specimens preserved between layers of glass. Peale’s fascination with butterflies developed not only from his family’s involvement in the culture of natural history, but also from the rich cultural associations of the mutable creatures. Due to its highly visible metamorphosis, the butterfly was a potent symbol of change, transformation, vanity, and the evanescence of beauty. In their transformation from earth-bound, homely caterpillars to brightly colored and patterned flying creatures, butterflies also acquired spiritual resonance that evoked the human passage from earthly body to heavenly soul or spirit; in their ‘rebirth’ from the cocoon, butterflies were seen to parallel Christ’s resurrection. Peale’s scientific and artistic preservation of these butterflies was an attempt to forestall their decay, immortalizing their perfection and transforming them from natural creatures that interacted with their environments into aesthetic objects, incapable of either decay or future life. The structured composition of Peale’s butterfly boxes imposed order, control, and symmetry on these fluttering, evolving creatures, while his use of watch glass explicitly trapped them in a tool of preservation intimately linked with the consideration of the passage of time.