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Whistler’s Butterfly

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Butterfly Design
Butterfly Design. Drawing by James McNeill Whistler, [1890-99]. (Click on the butterfly drawing to see a number of additional butterfly designs.)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Photograph by London Stereoscopic Company, 1878.

Some people contend that great art is distinguished in the attention the artist paid to the most minute details.  Artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) may be a good case in point in that he even turned his creative energy to the way in which he signed his work.

H. Barbara Weinberg of the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, states that “Whistler invented a monogram signature–a stylized butterfly based on his initials–and always placed it deliberately as a compositional element, not just a maker’s mark. His devotion to overall harmony extended to interior decoration, furniture, and the design of frames and even entire exhibitions.” Referring to the drawing pictured above, Prints & Photographs Curator of Fine Prints Katherine Blood describes how Whistler infuses this butterfly as an expressive alter ego:  “The impish attitude of this Whistler butterfly is enhanced by its barbed tail, curved antennae, and cape-like wings. Ultimately unpublished, this sprightly version is one in a series of drawings related to the artist’s 1899 account of a legal skirmish with Sir William Eden over artistic control of a portrait of Eden’s wife in The Baronet and the Butterfly.” (MacDonald no. 1573r).

Whistler’s butterfly monogram graces numerous diverse works found in the Prints & Photographs Division, even appearing on his carte-de-visite, shown above. Can you spot the butterfly on the etching Nocturne, which appears below?  

Nocturne. Lithotint by James McNeill Whistler, [1878].
  Learn More:


  • “James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)”  by  H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • James McNeill Whistler: drawings, pastels, and watercolors: a catalogue raisonné by Margaret F. MacDonald. New Haven ; London : Yale University Press, 1995. View catalog record:


  1. Terrific little tribute to Whistler, and precisely on the 110th anniversary of his death. I especially like the link to the Glasgow project, very useful for all kinds of reasons.

    Katherine Blood’s comment was astute, as always.

    From a faithful and admiring reader pf the P&P picture blog, Jane Van Nimmen

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