Brazilian Butterfly Art

This tray was sold at an earlier Queen B sale. A vintage souvenir of Brazil’s capitol, Rio De Janeiro, it was made sometime in the 1950s – 70s and found its way to Oregon; just the thing for serving cocktails at your Tiki bar, although it would not make a good gift for a Vegan; calling this tray “mixed media” is an understatement! The piece incorporates glass, paint, four varieties of wood, the wings of real butterflies, and last but not least, real snakeskin. In fact, all the different techniques needed to combine these materials suggest it may have been assembled by a progression of artisans rather than a single person. 

The outer rim is marquetry – a puzzle-like assembly of different varieties of naturally colored woods glued together in decorative patterns and then cut as one piece. The main elements of the landscape are hand-painted on glass. To protect the paint from wear, the design was reverse-painted on the BACK of the glass, i.e. the foremost black or gold lines were painted first, the background colors painted last. ‘Rio De Janeiro’ was painted as a mirror image in order to come out right when the glass was flipped over to mount it into the tray. The glass also protects the snakeskin and butterfly wings, the lowest layers affixed to the backing wood.

The scaled border snaking around the inner parameter of the tray (sorry!) was either cut from several different skins, or different parts of the same snake since you can make out different-sized scales. Sadly, these skins were not harmlessly shed but were harvested from dead animals like any other leather. It would take an expert to identify the species of snake since there are so many indigenous to the area, but the butterfly wings are from the spectacular Blue Morpho. Although hard to capture in a still photo, the wings are iridescent. On this tray, they provide the varying blues and purples at the center of the sky and its reflection in the sea below. A miniaturized version of the same technique using reverse-painted glass over a real butterfly wing also produced this charming little pendant.

Known as the Brazilian Carnival Butterfly or the Menelaus Blue Morpho (Morpho menelaus) this insect is the official National Butterfly of the Amazonian Federative Republic of Brazil. The name “Blue Morpho” Is also used for related blue butterflies in the Nymphalidae family. Most are not endangered species (yet) but the potential is there due to deforestation of the Amazon and habitat fragmentation which hampers breeding among wild populations. Because of their astonishing beauty and unusual size (up to 7″ across), Blue Morphos have been popular with museums, collectors, educational institutions and artisans worldwide for several centuries. In addition to being hunted in the wild, today they are also bred in captivity. 

Because the underside of many species’ wings are camouflage brown, Blue Morphos have the ‘power’ to disappear in the blink of an eye. For some Amazonian tribes, this made them spirit guides who revealed the true nature of the world. Other tribes had a darker belief – because the butterfly is toxic to predators and was harvested as a source of poison, it was considered evil. Scientists analyzing the microscopic scale formations that give the butterfly its iridescence have reverse-engineered the photonic crystals and today Canadian company Nanotech Security Corp produces nano optic structures and color shifting materials for authenticating bank notes, tax stamps and secured government documents, advanced technology based in part on the Blue Morpho. Or, you could just use a cool retro butterfly-wing tray to serve up some cocktails.