James McNeill Whistler
Date 1890MaterialsPencil on cardDimensions36.8 cm x 23.8
Further information GLAHA 46144.
Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler: Drawings, Pastels
and Watercolours: A Catalogue Raisonne, New Haven and London,
Yale University Press, 1995 (1246).
Note These butterflies were drawn for publication
in Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890).
Whistler’s signature is very helpful for experts to date
his paintings and works on paper. By 1869 he had adopted a butterfly
signature, evolved from his initials “JW”, to replace
his name in order to enhance the decorative quality of his works.
He did not want his pictures to be literary and his new monogram
helped to distance his images from the written word. The butterfly
was the perfect symbol for his art, being beautiful and flighty.
Whistler's butterfly signature developed over many years. At the time of the Whistler v. Ruskin trial he added a sting to its tail and when he married in 1888 he attached a trefoil for luck. However, Whistler’s butterfly signature
can be confusing, as he sometimes would sign a painting five or
more years after it was finished, perhaps at the request of its
Whistler's signature was an important part of his pictures, and
often helped to visually balance the composition [link – Painting section/Portraits/GLAHA 137]. Sometimes he signed the frame of his pictures, which he also designed, to show that the whole effect was important to him.