Fashion in the Natural World: Fusing Science with Art

Emile-Allain Séguy was a popular French designer throughout the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements of the 1920s. Often confused with the French entomologist Eugene Séguy who was active during the same time period, E.A. Séguy designed primarily patterns and textiles and was heavily influenced by the natural world. He was particularly fond of the intricate patterns and beauty of insects (Eugene would have approved), which he saw as “mechanic wonders” that provided abundant inspiration for interior design (Schiff, 157).

In 1920, the American textile manufacturer F. Schumacher and Co. commissioned the work Papillons, which was to include stunning compositions of butterflies intended for use as wallpaper, textiles, and other interior and fashion design purposes. Referring to scientific illustrations for reference, Séguy reproduced 81 butterflies within 16 compositions, as well as four additional plates of decorative patterns inspired by butterfly wings, using the pochoir technique. The pochoir technique is based on an ancient method that uses stencils for color application. A costly and labor-intensive technique, pochoir was especially popular in Paris in the 1920s. Each color in a design has its own stencil and layers of gouache or other pigments are applied through each stencil by hand with a brush or sponge. The result is an intense and accurate representation of the colors intended for each composition (Schiff, 157).

Though the butterflies and plates are ultimately meant for design applications, Séguy emphasized his use of scientific illustrations to inspire his art and included a table of scientific names within Papillons identifying the species depicted in each plate and its place of origin. The work includes species from across the globe (Schiff, 158).

Séguy’s designs were reproduced extensively in textiles, wallpapers, and other decorative applications for nearly a century. You can view all of the plates from this work in Flickr. This week, we put the artwork to another use in the Color Our Collections event. The event invites you to download images from library and cultural institution collections, color them, and share them on social media using the event hashtag #ColorOurCollections. We created a plethora of content for the event, including a Flickr collection containing over 1,000 black and white illustrations from BHL’s collection. We also created a set of coloring pages from colored illustrations in our collection, which are available separately in Pinterest and also as a single PDF.

A significant portion of the coloring pages we created are from Séguy’s Papillons, which was digitized for BHL by Smithsonian Libraries. While the colors chosen and so carefully applied by Séguy may reflect the true hues of the natural world, we invite you to design your own butterflies! Download the PDF, choose your own colors for Séguy’s outlines, and share the results on social media by tagging @BioDivLibrary and using the #ColorOurCollections hashtag.

The natural world is alive with artistic inspiration. It’s your turn to color your world!

This post is derived from the article:
Schiff, Stacy J. (2012). Fashion in the Natural World. In T. Baione (Ed.), Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (pp. 157-159). New York: Sterling Publishing.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.