Always eager to distinguish himself from the crowd, James Abbott McNeill Whistler invented a unique butterfly monogram with which to sign his art and correspondence instead of a traditional signature. Researchers have traced the development of the signature to its first appearance around 1869 and through its gradual evolvement over the next thirty years. The butterfly insignia started as a stylized version of Whistler’s monogram ‘J.W.’ that developed into a butterfly, whose body formed the “J” and wings formed the “W.”
Whistler used his butterfly both as a symbol for himself and as part of the design in his paintings and prints. In certain contexts, Whistler would mischievously add a scorpion stinger tail to the butterfly. This was said to embody the contradictory qualities of his delicate painting style and his combative personality. The butterfly symbol became so popular that people used to bring back paintings they had purchased before he started using the symbol so he could paint in on the ones they owned.
The iconic butterfly insignia, and the way Whistler cleverly and prominently integrated it into his aesthetic compositions, was heavily influenced by the flat, stylized characters commonly found on Japanese woodblock prints and ceramics. In some paintings he has created a “chop” seal as an homage to the influence of traditional Japanese art. Whistler liked the effect of the butterfly because it resembled ideographs, or symbols used in Japanese works of art.
Long form articles:
James McNeill Whistler
Published by Smithsonian Books (1994)