Masterpiece on Butterflies Published After a Century on the Shelf main content.

Masterpiece on Butterflies Published After a Century on the Shelf

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On September 1, readers will be able enjoy a long-hidden treasure of natural history with the release of The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript. Based on a never-before-published manuscript preserved for nearly a century in the American Museum of Natural History’s Rare Book Collection, the book is packed with color plates bearing Peale’s beautiful illustrations of butterflies and caterpillars.

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Titian Peale's life's work, The Butterflies of North America, was never published.

Titian Ramsay Peale II (1799–1885) was an American artist and naturalist from a well-known Philadelphia family. His father, historian and painter Charles Willson Peale, founded the Philadelphia Museum. He also named three other sons for famous painters: Rembrandt, Rubens, and Raphaelle.

True to his namesake, Titian Peale was a Renaissance man—a painter, naturalist, butterfly collector, explorer, hunter, and early photographer. He painted his first professional commission—plates to attract subscribers to Thomas Say’s American Entomology—at age 16. The next year he was elected to full membership in the newly founded Academy of Natural Sciences.

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In addition to the long-awaited book, note cards and other items are available, all featuring Peale's beautiful illustrations.

As an adult, Peale was dogged by hardship, including the early death of his first wife and children and persistent financial difficulties. But Peale never gave up on his masterwork, Butterflies of North America, preparing a prospectus in 1833 and continuing to work on it until his death in 1885. A family member donated the manuscript to the Museum in 1916. After nearly a century in the archives, this masterpiece is finally emerging from its cocoon. 

Peale was especially fascinated by the life cycle of butterflies, composing painted portraits of a species with its preferred food and at every developmental stage. The new book captures this abiding interest, reproducing manuscript pages and hundreds of works of art accompanied by field notes, and is already receiving warm reviews.

Peale’s original work is accompanied by essays by David A. Grimaldi, curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, and art historian Kenneth Haltman. Also included are explanatory publication notes by Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Museum’s Research Library, and conservator Barbara Rhodes.

This title not only demonstrates Peale’s mastery at marrying science and art but, as Museum President Ellen V. Futter writes in the book’s foreword, its publication promises “a kind of butterfly-like metamorphosis for Peale’s legacy itself, attracting rightful attention and many new admirers.”

See live butterflies in The Butterfly Conservatory.