Tuesday, 1 May 2018

James McNeill Whistler's Butterfly Signature

I've long been an admirer of the paintings of artist and aesthete James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). I particularly like the loose, painterly style of the brush work he applied in his works of art, as well as the close tonal harmonies, and then there is the inspired idea of naming his paintings after musical terms such nocturnes, harmonies and arrangements. It was only recently that I noticed on closer inspection, that there were lepidopteral connections to his work in the form of the butterfly motifs and monograms that he applied to his paintings in lieu of a signature.

In the late 1800s the decorative style dubbed Chinoiserie, and the unusual viewpoints and close compositional cropping seen in Japanese prints were hugely popular and influential on Western artists such as the Impressionists, Van Gogh and Degas. Whistler himself also fell under the spell of the arts and crafts from the East, and amassed a large collection of Asian ceramics. He began to study the various potter's marks on the bases of the pieces that he collected, and this led to him adapting and developing his own monogram to stamp onto his paintings based on those found on Chinese/Japanese ceramics.

Whistler chose to adopt the butterfly motif (a popular image in Oriental art), as a signature in the 1860s, first using it on a drawing of a nude in 1869. The 'J' was the body of the butterfly, and the 'W' the wings. Whistler's butterfly mark became as distinctive as a signature and as he developed it, he began to apply it to his paintings.

Developmental monogram sketches.

Over the years his butterfly signature evolved and he began to place it in his paintings as a deliberate compositional element, as well as a monogram from 1873. This proved a very useful tool for art historians when researching and dating his work. There follows some nice examples of his paintings below, with the stylised butterfly monogram in various stages of development and prominence.

Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (1881)

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872-74)

Whistler incorporated actual painted butterflies, as well as the signature butterfly monogram in this popular portrait held in the Tate Gallery's collection.

 Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights (1872)

The sparseness of composition, and economy of mark-making in these two paintings clearly show the influence of Japanese prints on Whistler's art.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea (1871)

Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret (1883-84)

The butterfly monogram is very prominent in these two male portraits in its own right. The monogram in the painting below looks very much like Batman's Bat signal.

 Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (1872-73)

At the time of his notoriously bitter libel trial against the art critic Ruskin, Whistler added a scorpion-like sting to the tail of his butterfly monogram as a sign of the delicate nature of his painting, and an indication of the combative spirit of his mischievous personality (below).

Below is the metal template that Whistler used to stencil his monogram onto his some of his works.

Arrangement In Grey: Portrait of the Painter (c.1872)