When I had just started working at Questroyal, I was researching an Albert Bierstadt we owned and came across a butterfly painting by the artist in one of our library books. I was struck by how different the painting was from the Bierstadt work I knew. The piece was a brightly colored depiction of a single butterfly centered on a blank page, laid out as if it were a specimen in an insect collection. It was stunning, and I was eager to learn more about this anomaly in Bierstadt’s oeuvre.
It turns out that Bierstadt made many of these butterflies (Fig. 1). The story goes that he created these little works for society ladies during their visits to his studio. In 1892, a journalist from the Detroit Free Press was invited to the artist’s studio with a select group. She reported: “We women were so glad we were women that afternoon, for Mr. Bierstadt presented each lady with a souvenir. This is how he made them. We all clustered about the table and he took out a palette, a knife and some large slips of cartridge paper. Two or three daubs of pigment on the paper, a quick fold, and holding it still folded against a pane of glass, he made two or three strokes of that wizard-like palette knife on the outside, and hey, presto! a wonderful Brazilian butterfly or moth, even the veining on the wings complete!”
Bierstadt is remembered for his large, sweeping landscape paintings. He experienced the height of his career in the 1860s and he continued to work in his meticulous, grandiose manner for the rest of his life. However, by the late nineteenth century, art critics favored Impressionism and tonalism over the Hudson River School. While Bierstadt did not engage in these newer styles, the aesthetic of his butterflies was very fashionable. At the end of the century, artists and designers were interested in scientific depictions of nature, particularly the conventionalized specimens that were devoid of an environment. The butterflies are particularly reminiscent of Ernst Haeckel’s popular prints published between 1899 and 1904 (Fig. 2).
Art Nouveau was also gaining momentum in the 1890s (Fig. 3), the influence of which is evident in the flowing patterns and sinuous lines of Bierstadt’s butterflies. The artist’s characteristic landscape paintings are virile depictions of a robust landscape, likely appealing to men more than women. On the other hand, Art Nouveau was avant-garde and had a reputation as a feminine style. Perhaps the butterfly gifts were a way of currying favor with a potential client’s wife, who might be charmed into supporting her husband’s purchase of Bierstadt’s work.
In addition to engaging in the current aesthetic, the butterflies can be viewed as a clever sales tactic. Bierstadt is known for his merchandising techniques and business savvy. In the late 1800s, the personality of the artist and the experience of buying an artwork were essential to painting sales. It was not enough to make beautiful paintings: an artist had to design his own aesthetic studio to entertain clients and become a performer himself (Fig 4). The quotation from the Detroit Free Press reveals the spectacle that Bierstadt created and the appeal of the performance. While beautiful as independent works of art, the butterfly paintings were also mementos for the butterfly experience.
1. As quoted in Gordon Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1974), 302–3.
2. See Nancy K. Anderson, Linda S. Ferber, and Helena Wright, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 1990).
3. See Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).