Art Moment: ‘Butterflies’ by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891)

I was a butterfly
fluttering about,
light as air, and
happy with myself
until I woke up to find
that a butterfly I was not.
But wait – did I dream
myself as a butterfly,
or am I a butterfly
who dreamt it was me?

~ poem based on Zhuangzi (4th century BC)

Shibata Zeshin, ‘Butterflies’, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 78 x 23 cm. Private collection.

Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was a renowned lacquer and print artist of the late Edo and early Meiji period. He was also known for his innovative approach to traditional Japanese painting techniques such as incorporating metallic pigments and applying layers of lacquer to create a sense of depth and texture in his works. His artistic contributions were widely recognized during his lifetime both in Japan and abroad. Among his many awards is the Order of the Rising Sun, one of Japan’s highest civilian honors. Today, his works are held in private and public collections around the world, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ‘Butterflies’, one of his most exquisite painting, exemplifies Shibata’s use of bold, dynamic brushstrokes to create a simple, yet vivid scene of nature.

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