Monday, June 6, 2011

Human Butterflies Aflutter at Christie's

by Stephen J. Gertz

In nature a repulsive caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly.  But with humans it is the other way around:  a lovely butterfly turns into a repulsive caterpillar  - Anton Chekhov

I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man  - Chuang Tzu

The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets all the publicity  - George Carlin

On Thursday June 23, 2011, Christie's is offering a copy a one of the most stunning anthropomorphic works ever produced. Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres de Peuples de l'Air, published in 1852 and illustrated by Amédée Varin, depicts humans as butterflies within natural settings.

"I saw a passenger sitting beside the road."

The butterflies are free - Charles Dickens (Bleak House).
Generally speaking, yes. But if you wish to net these particular lepidopteri you'll have to lay out a little nectar to attract them. Christie's is estimating the book to sell for $2,000 - $3000.

Its original cloth binding (see above) is as gorgeous as can be imagined.

"She swayed gently in the air."

Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres de Peuples de l'Air was inspired by J.J. Grandville's Les Métamorphoses de Jour (Paris: 1828-29). Grandville (pseudonym of Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard), the great French caricaturist, created seventy-two images of various animals as humans in social situations, skillfully imparting human emotions to the animals' faces. It's a satire of human behavior. 

"Hopping and dancing was their most attractive occupation."

Varin (1818-1883), however, was not a satirist but a fantasist. From a dynasty of artists dating back to the seventeenth century, he began his career engraving fashion designs and religious images.

"Christmas Tree."
"The removal of Cypris."

The thirty-five hand-colored engraved plates Varin created for Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres de Peuples de l'Air are quite spectacular, delicately searing themselves into memory. Charming, lovely, enchanting and utterly delightful they endure as one of the most pleasing color-plate suites ever published, tout sweet. Popular when originally published, the images remain so and have been reproduced as posters, greeting cards, etc.

"Promenade of Teschou-Lama."
"The Lady of the Butterflies."

Antony Meray (1817-18??), who, in concert with Eugene Nus, wrote the accompanying text, was the author of, amongst other volumes, Bibliographie Des Chansons, Fabliaux, Contes En Vers Et En Prose (1859); Les libres prêcheurs devanciers de Luther et de Rabelais: étude historique, critique et anecdotique sur les XIVe, XVe et XVIe siècles (1860); and La Vie Au Temps Des Cours D'Amour: Croyances, Usages Et Moeurs Intimes Des XIE, Xiie, Xiiie Siecles (1873).

Faster, faster, my sister, Goul-Gou-li, cried.
"Fleur de vanilla receives a farewell from her fiancé."

In a glaring omission Varin left out the most renowned human butterfly, now a cultural icon, forgivable only because this species had yet to be identified at the time the artist created Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres des Peuples de l'Air.

Papillon McQueen, wings clipped.

...And his sister, Butterfly McQueen.
"I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' butterflies."

The year before Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres des Peuples de l'Air was published, Varin produced L'Empire des Légumes (1851), aka Drôleries végétales, his initial anthropomorphic collaboration with Meray and Nus. Let's hear it for whimsical veggies with a sense of humor. (An artichoke  heart, a roasted red pepper, and a grilled asparagus spear walk into a bar, and the bartender says, "Whad'ya think this is, a restaurant? We don't serve antipasti. Scram!").

A vinegar and oil shampoo.
Extra-green virgin - the oil, not the veggies.
From L'Empire des Légumes.

The Empire of the Vegetables is not to be confused with The Empire of the Ants (1977), a radioactive B-movie, very loosely based upon the H.G. Wells story (1905), in which wooden actors portray vapid humans with vegetarian results, to wit, as turnips, no picnic for the actors, the humans, the ants, and, especially, the viewers.

"I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords."
- Joan Collins as Marilyn Fryser.


A traitorous sentiment from the comely Ms. Collins as Marilyn Fryser, a real estate developer with well-developed real estate, and short-sighted; just wait until the sex-bomb is seduced by a giant bedbug.

But if the insects are butterflies, no tyranny in the boudoir expected; blue skies shall reign. Yet sunshine, lollipops, polka-dots, and moonbeams will only last so long. Power corrupts, and even the meek butterfly can get all puffed up by world domination. 

I remember Mothra.


MERAY,  Antony and NUS, Eugene; VARIN, Amédée (illustrator). Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres des Peuples de l'Air. Paris: Gabriel de Gonet, n.d. [1852]. First edition. Two large octavo volumes (262 x 172 mm). 238; 258, [4, as contents and index] pp. Thirty-five hand-colored engraved plates, including frontispieces. Original blue cloth, pictorially stamped upper board, gilt butterfly to lower board, spine pictorially stamped.

Carteret III, 492.  Vicaire VI, 246.

N.B.: Some websites incorrectly state the date of publication as 1862.

Images from Les Papillons Métamorphoses Terrestres des Peuples de l'Air courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

Of related interest: Early American Butterflies Alight in South Carolina.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, now that's a good looking book. They don't make them like that anymore (not that I could afford to buy one).


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