Insects in art

Insects have found uses in art, as in other aspects of culture, both symbolically and physically, from ancient times. Artforms include the direct usage of beetlewing (elytra) in paintings, textiles, and jewellery, as well as the representation of insects in fine arts such as paintings and sculpture. Insects have sometimes formed characteristic features of artforms, as in Art Nouveau jewellery.

Insect groups represented in art include bees, beetles, butterflies, orthopterans (crickets, locusts and grasshoppers) and dragonflies.

Jan van Kessel (I) Dragon-fly moths spider beetles with strawberries
A Dragon-fly, Two Moths, a Spider and Some Beetles, With Wild Strawberries by Jan van Kessel, 17th century. A wasp-mimicking longhorn beetle, top left; clouded border moth, top right; migrant hawker dragonfly and cardinal beetle, centre left; magpie moth, centre right; cockchafer, lower left.


Societies across the world have from ancient to modern times used the shapes and colours of insects, and sometimes their actual bodies, in their art, whether jewellery or ceramics, body painting or textiles, paintings or sculptures. In North America, the Navajo make symbolic sandpaintings of blowflies, cicadas, corn bugs and dragonflies. The Hopi draw a variety of insects, but especially butterflies, on pottery. In other parts of the world, insects, most often honeybees, are shown in ancient rock art. Australian Aborigines often represented totemic insects in cave paintings and ritual objects. The art of cultures as widely separated as Ancient Greece, China and Japan includes bees, butterflies, crickets, cicadas and dragonflies.[1]

Insect groups

Pendant watch in shape of beetle Switzerland 1850-1900 gold, diamond, enamel
Pendant watch in shape of beetle, Switzerland 1850-1900 gold, diamond, enamel


A recurrent theme for ancient cultures in Europe and the Near East was the sacred image of a bee or human with insect features. Often referred to as the bee "goddess", these images were found in gems and stones. An onyx gem from Knossos (ancient Crete) dating to approximately 1500 BC illustrates a Bee goddess with bull horns above her head. In this instance, the figure is surrounded by dogs with wings, most likely representing Hecate and Artemis - gods of the underworld, similar to the Egyptian gods Akeu and Anubis.[2]

In 2011, the artist Anna Collette created over 10,000 ceramic insects at Nottingham Castle for her work "Stirring the Swarm."[3][4]


Beetlewing art is an ancient craft technique using iridescent beetle wing cases (elytra), practised traditionally in Thailand, Myanmar, India, China and Japan, as well as Africa and South America. Beetlewing pieces are used as an adornment to paintings, textiles and jewellery. Different species of metallic wood-boring beetle wings were used depending on the region, but traditionally the most valued were the brilliant green wing cases of jewel beetles in the genus Sternocera (Buprestidae). In Thailand, beetlewings were used to decorate clothing (shawls and Sabai cloth) and jewellery in court circles.[1]

The Canadian entomologist C.H. Curran's 1945 book, Insects of the Pacific World, noted women from India and Sri Lanka, who kept 1 1/2 inch long, iridescent greenish coppery beetles of the species Chrysochroa ocellata as pets. These living jewels were worn on festive occasions, probably with a small chain attached to one leg anchored to the clothing to prevent escape. Afterwards, the insects were bathed, fed, and housed in decorative cages. Living jeweled beetles have also been worn and kept as pets in Mexico.[5]


Joris and Jacob Hoefnagel - Allegory on Life and Death
Allegory on Life and Death, a collaboration between Joris and Jacob Hoefnagel, 1598. Visible are Lepidoptera, Diptera, Coleoptera, and Zygoptera.

Butterflies have long inspired humans with their life cycle, color, and ornate patterns. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov was also a renowned butterfly expert. He published and illustrated many butterfly species, stating:

"I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were games of intricate enchantment and deception."[6]

It was the aesthetic complexity of insects that led Nabokov to reject natural selection.[7][8] The naturalist Ian MacRae writes of butterflies:

". . . the animal is at once awkward, flimsy, strange, bouncy in flight, yet beautiful and immensely sympathetic; it is painfully transient, albeit capable of extreme migrations and transformations. Images and phrases such as "kaleidoscopic instabilities," "oxymoron of similarities," "rebellious rainbows," "visible darkness" and "souls of stone" have much in common.They bring together the two terms of a conceptual contradiction, thereby facilitating the mixing of what should be discrete and mutually exclusive categories . . . In positing such questions, butterfly science, an inexhaustible, complex, and finely nuanced field, becomes not unlike the human imagination, or the field of literature itself. In the natural history of the animal, we begin to sense its literary and artistic possibilities."[9]

The photographer Kjell Sanded spent 25 years documenting all 26 characters of the Latin alphabet using the wing patterns of butterflies and moths as "The Butterfly Alphabet".[10]


Dragonfly symbol on a Hopi bowl from Sikyátki, Arizona

For some Native American tribes, dragonflies represent swiftness and activity; for the Navajo, they symbolize pure water. They are a common motif in Zuni pottery; stylized as a double-barred cross, they appear in Hopi rock art and on Pueblo necklaces.[11]

Images of dragonflies are common in Art Nouveau, especially in jewellery designs.[12]


Grasshopper detail in Rachel Ruysch Flowers in a Vase c 1685
Detail of grasshopper on table in Rachel Ruysch's painting Flowers in a Vase, c. 1685. National Gallery, London

Grasshoppers are occasionally depicted in artworks, such as the Dutch Golden Age painter Balthasar van der Ast's still life oil painting, Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects, c. 1630, now in the National Gallery, London, though the insect may be a bush-cricket.[13]

Another orthopteran is found in Rachel Ruysch's still life Flowers in a Vase, c. 1685. The seemingly static scene is animated by a "grasshopper on the table that looks about ready to spring", according to the gallery curator Betsy Wieseman, with other invertebrates including a spider, an ant, and two caterpillars.[14][15]


  1. ^ a b Morris, 2006.
  2. ^ Gough, Andrew. "The Bee Part 2 Beewildered". Retrieved 23 July 2012.
  3. ^ French, Anneka. "Stirring the Swarm". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  4. ^ "Stirring the Swarm". Retrieved 21 August 2012.
  5. ^ Rivers, Victoria. "Beetles in Textiles". Cultural Entomology Digest February. Retrieved 23 July 2012.
  6. ^ Nabokov,, Vladimir. (1989). Speak, Memory. New York:: Vintage International. p. 129.
  7. ^ Ahuja, Nitin. "Nabokov's Case Against Natural Selection". Tract. Retrieved 23 July 2012.
  8. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1990). Strong Opinions. Vintage International.
  9. ^ MacRae, Ian. "Butterfly Chronicles: Imagination and Desire in Natural & Literary Histories". Canadian Journal of Environ Education.
  10. ^ "Kjell Sandved's Scaly Type". Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  11. ^ Mitchell, Forrest L.; Lasswell, James L. (2005). A Dazzle of Dragonflies. Texas A&M University Press. pp. 20–26. ISBN 1-58544-459-6.
  12. ^ Moonan, Wendy (August 13, 1999). "Dragonflies Shimmering as Jewelry". New York Times. pp. E2:38.
  13. ^ "Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects". The National Gallery. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  14. ^ "Flowers in a Vase". The National Gallery. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  15. ^ "The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Nineteen". The National Gallery. May 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2015. Betsy Wieseman: Well, there are two caterpillars that I can see. I particularly like the one right in the foreground that’s just dangling from his thread and looking to land somewhere. It’s this wonderful little suggestion of movement. There’s a grasshopper on the table that looks about ready to spring to the other side and then nestled up between the rose and the peony is a wonderful spider and an ant on the petals of the rose.


  • Morris, Brian (2006) [2004]. Cultural Entomology. Insects and Human Life. Berg. pp. 181–216. ISBN 978-1-84520-949-0.

Beetlewing, or beetlewing art, is an ancient craft technique using iridescent beetle wings practiced traditionally in Thailand, Myanmar, India, China and Japan.

Brady Street Beasts

Brady Street Beasts is a public art work by American artist Bill Reid located on the East Side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin near Brady Street and the Holton Street Viaduct. The artwork consists of three creatures made of painted steel.

Butterflies (Van Gogh series)

Butterflies is a series paintings made by Vincent van Gogh in 1889 and 1890. Van Gogh made at least four paintings of butterflies and one of a moth. The metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly was symbolic to Van Gogh of men and women's capability for transformation.

Fontana del Tritone, Rome

Fontana del Tritone (Triton Fountain) is a seventeenth-century fountain in Rome, by the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Commissioned by his patron, Pope Urban VIII, the fountain is located in the Piazza Barberini, near the entrance to the Palazzo Barberini (which now houses the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica) that Bernini helped to design and construct for the Barberini, Urban's family. This fountain should be distinguished from the nearby Fontana dei Tritoni (Fountain of the Tritons) by Carlo Francesco Bizzaccheri in Piazza Bocca della Verità which features two Tritons.

The fountain was executed in travertine in 1642–43. At its centre rises a larger than lifesize muscular Triton, a minor sea god of ancient Greco-Roman legend, depicted as a merman kneeling on the sum of four dolphin tailfins. His head is thrown back and his arms raise a conch to his lips; from it a jet of water spurts, formerly rising dramatically higher than it does today. The fountain has a base of four dolphins that entwine the papal tiara with crossed keys and the heraldic Barberini bees in their scaly tails.The Tritone, the first of Bernini's free-standing urban fountains, was erected to provide water from the Acqua Felice aqueduct which Urban had restored, in a dramatic celebration. It was Bernini's last major commission from his great patron who died in 1644. At the Triton Fountain, Urban and Bernini brought the idea of a sculptural fountain, familiar from villa gardens, decisively to a public urban setting for the first time; previous public fountains in the city of Rome had been passive basins for the reception of public water.

Bernini has represented the triton to illustrate the triumphant passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses book I, evoking godlike control over the waters and describing the draining away of the Universal Deluge. The passage that Urban set Bernini to illustrate, was well known to all literate Roman contemporaries:

Already Triton, at his call, appears

Above the waves; a Tyrian robe he wears;

And in his hand a crooked trumpet bears.

The sovereign bids him peaceful sounds inspire,

And give the waves the signal to retire.

His writhen shell he takes; whose narrow vent

Grows by degrees into a large extent,

Then gives it breath; the blast with doubling sound,

Runs the wide circuit of the world around:

The sun first heard it, in his early east,

And met the rattling echoes in the west.

The waters, list'ning to the trumpet's roar,

Obey the summons, and forsake the shore.

—free translation by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al..Two finished terracotta bozzetti at the Detroit Institute of Arts, securely attributed to Bernini, reflect his exploration of the fountain's themes of the intertwined upended dolphins and the muscular, scaly-tailed Triton.

Fontana delle Api

Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees) is a fountain located in the Piazza Barberini in Rome where the Via Veneto enters the piazza. It was sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and completed in April 1644.

Fontana delle Api consists of a marble bi-valve shell with three bees of the same material resting on it. The fountain was intended to be a watering trough for horses. An inscription on the shell reads, "Urban VIII Pont. Max., having built a fountain for the public ornamentation of the City, also built this little fountain to be of service to private citizens. In the year 1644, XXI of his pontificate." The "public ornamentation" referred to in the inscription is the Fontana del Tritone (Triton Fountain), which Bernini had completed the year before.

Hermia and Lysander (painting)

Hermia and Lysander is a watercolor painting created in 1870 by British illustrator and miniature portrait painter John Simmons. Based on a scene from Act II, scene II of William Shakespeare's comedy play A Midsummer Night's Dream, it measures 89 by 74 centimetres (35 by 29 in).Paintings of fairies had a resurgence of popularity in the 19th century with many based on scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Simmons produced several pieces in this genre. According to Christopher Wood, an expert in Victorian art, the details included in Simmons' fairy paintings were "executed with an astonishing clarity" and gave the impression they had been painted on a glass surface. The majority of Simmons' depictions of fairies were of naked females and Wood considered them the "bunny girls of the Victorian era".

A watercolor painting using gouache, the artwork shows Hermia with her lover Lysander when they are lost in an enchanted wood. The couple are surrounded by a community of fairies; some are pictured in flight using their delicate wings, others are transported in chariots shackled to mice. The couple are tired and disorientated, appearing unaware of the crowds of animals and fairies around them. Lysander is seated and touching Hermia's fingers with one hand while indicating the soft forest moss with his other hand. It is the point in the tale of A Midsummer Night's Dream when he invites her to rest, saying:

The painting achieved a sale price of £42,470 when auctioned in New York by Sotheby's in May 2012, a record price for work by this artist. It had previously been auctioned by Sotheby's in London on 19 June 1984 and a decade later by Sotheby's, New York, on 25 May 1994, when it was wrongly attributed to Julius Simmons.

Insects on stamps

Many countries have featured insects on stamps. Insect related topics such as the mosquito eradication (anti malaria) programme of the 1960s as well as graphic designs based on insects have also appeared. Many stamps also feature butterflies.Insects only started to appear on stamps much later than other larger and more attractive animals. The first postal stamp featuring a beetle was released in 1948 in Chile as a tribute to natural historian Claudio Gay. Since then, insects have become popular subjects in philately. Between 1953 and 1969, about 100 stamps featuring beetles were published worldwide. Most of the time, aesthetically attractive species are pictured, but some stamps also feature pests. In other instances, due to simplified drawing, it is hard to identify what species is depicted on the stamp.

John Hampson (artist)

John Hampson (1836–1923)was an artist whose works hang at the Fairbanks Museum in Vermont. Hampson is known for his unusual mosaics formed of tens of thousands of insects, whether moths, butterflies, or beetles.

Metamorphosis III

Metamorphosis III is a woodcut print by the Dutch artist M. C. Escher created during 1967 and 1968. Measuring 19 cm × 680 cm (7 1⁄2 in × 22 ft 3 1⁄2 in), this is Escher's largest print. It was printed on thirty-three blocks on six combined sheets and mounted on canvas. This print was partly coloured by hand.

It begins identically to Metamorphosis II, with the word metamorphose (the Dutch form of the word metamorphosis) forming a grid pattern and then becoming a black-and-white checkered pattern. Then the first set of new imagery begins. The angles of the checkered pattern change to elongated diamond shapes. These then become an image of flowers with bees. This image then returns to the diamond pattern and back into the checkered pattern.

It then resumes with the Metamorphosis II imagery until the bird pattern. The birds then become sailing boats. From the sailing boats the image changes to a second fish pattern. Then from the fish to horses. The horses then become a second bird pattern. The second bird pattern then becomes black-and-white triangles, which then become envelopes with wings. These winged envelopes then return to the black-and-white triangles and then to the original bird pattern. It then resumes with the Metamorphosis II print until its conclusion.

Paradise and Hell

Paradise and Hell is the left and right panels of a minor diptych by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch based on The Haywain Triptych. The image is oil on panel and is 135 x 45 cm. It was painted c. 1510 and is now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Paradise is depicted darker than in the Haywain, which possibly represents the darkness of original sin.

The Blind Girl

The Blind Girl (1856) is a painting by John Everett Millais which depicts two itinerant beggars, presumed to be sisters, one of whom is a blind musician, her concertina on her lap. They are resting by the roadside after a rainstorm, before travelling to the town of Winchelsea, visible in the background.The painting has been interpreted as an allegory of the senses, contrasting the experiences of the blind and sighted sisters. The former feels the warmth of the sun on her face, and fondles a blade of grass, while the latter shields her eyes from the sun or rain and looks at the unusual spectacle of a double rainbow that has just appeared. Some critics have interpreted the rainbow in Biblical terms, as the sign of God's covenant described in Genesis 9:16.When the painting was first exhibited in 1856 it was pointed out to Millais that in double rainbows the inner rainbow inverts the order of the colours. Millais had originally painted the colours in the same order in both rainbows. He altered it for scientific accuracy.A tortoiseshell butterfly rests on the blind girl's shawl, implying that she is holding herself extremely still. The sheet around her neck is captioned "Pity the Blind".

The Fly (poem)

"The Fly" is a poem written by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794.It was set to music in 1965 by Benjamin Britten as part of his song cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

Esperanza Spalding recorded this poem on her 2010 album Chamber Music Society.

The Great Masturbator

The Great Masturbator (1929) is a painting by Salvador Dalí executed during the surrealist epoch, and is currently displayed at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

The Hallucinogenic Toreador

The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a 1968–1970 multi-leveled oil painting by Salvador Dalí which employs the canons of his particular interpretation of surrealist thought. It is currently being exhibited at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In The Hallucinogenic Toreador Dalí transmits his wife's dislike for bullfighting by combining symbolism, optical illusions, and estranging yet familiar motifs. Dali used his paranoiac-critical method to create his own visual language within the painting, and combined versatile images as an instructive example of his artistic ability and vision.

The Haywain Triptych

The Haywain Triptych is a panel painting by Hieronymus Bosch, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. A date of around 1516 has been established by means of dendrochronological research. The central panel, signed "Jheronimus Bosch", measures 135 by 200 centimeters and the wings measure 147 × 66 cm. The outside shutters feature a version of Bosch's The Wayfarer.

The Hireling Shepherd

The Hireling Shepherd (1851) is a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. It represents a shepherd neglecting his flock in favour of an attractive country girl to whom he shows a death's-head hawkmoth. The meaning of the image has been much debated.

The Holy Family with the Dragonfly

The Holy Family with the Dragonfly, also known as The Holy Family with the Mayfly, The Holy Family with the Locust and The Holy Family with the Butterfly is an engraving by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) from approximately 1495. It is quite small but full of intricate detail. A very popular image, copied by other printmakers within five years of creation, it is found in most major print room collections, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the UK Royal Collection.

The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory (Spanish: La persistencia de la memoria) is a 1931 painting by artist Salvador Dalí, and one of the most recognizable works of Surrealism. First shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, since 1934 the painting has been in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, which received it from an anonymous donor. It is widely recognized and frequently referenced in popular culture, and sometimes referred to by more descriptive (though incorrect) titles, such as "Melting Clocks", "The Soft Watches" or "The Melting Watches".

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania is an oil on canvas painting by the Scottish artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton. Painted in 1849, it depicts the scene from William Shakespeare's comedy play A Midsummer Night's Dream, when the fairy queen Titania and fairy king Oberon quarrel; Oberon was considered the King of the fairies in medieval and Renaissance literature. When exhibited in Edinburgh during 1850, it was declared as the "painting of the season". It was acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland in 1897, having initially been bought by the Royal Association for Promoting the Fine Arts in Scotland during 1850. An earlier version of this painting was Paton's diploma picture, which was submitted to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1846; they paid £700 for it.

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