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“Great Peacock Moth” by Vincent van Gogh

"Great Peacock Moth" by Vincent van Gogh

“Great Peacock Moth” by Vincent van Gogh

“Great Peacock Moth” by Vincent van Gogh is part of a series of paintings made between 1889 and 1890 of at least four paintings of butterflies and one of a moth.

Van Gogh was fascinated by the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly, which was symbolic of Van Gogh’s belief in people’s capability for transformation.

Van Gogh preferred the color of the butterflies and found the moths generally duller in color, but the great peacock moth caught his attention.

This painting was made in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, May-June 1889, during which time Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:

“I drew yesterday a large, rather rare moth called a skull moth,
with wonderfully fine colors: black, gray, white,
nuanced and with a crimson glow or slightly olive green; it is very large.”

Van Gogh painted the moth, based on his drawing. Van Gogh imaginatively called it a “skull moth” and also drew a skull on the abdomen.

This painting was made after he left Arles and voluntarily entered an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Around this time, he wrote:

“Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

When in need of solace, nature is where Van Gogh went to find peace. In a letter to a friend, Van Gogh uses the miracle of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly to consider what possibilities may be available in the universe:

“We are at liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence,
an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly …
The existence of a painter-butterfly would be played out on the countless celestial bodies, which, after death,
should be no more inaccessible to us than the black dots on maps that symbolize towns and villages are in our earthly lives.”

Great Peacock Moth

The great peacock moth or giant emperor moth is a Saturniid moth that is native to Europe. It is the largest European moth, with a wingspan reaching 15–20 cm.

"Great Peacock Moth" by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent Willem van Gogh is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime and was considered a madman and a failure.

He created about 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of them in the last two years of his life.

They were characterized by bold colors and dramatic, impulsive, and expressive brushwork that contributed to the foundations of modern art.

Great Peacock Moth

  • Title:                  Great Peacock Moth
  • Also:                  Emperor moth
  • Artist:                Vincent van Gogh
  • Year:                  1889
  • Medium:           Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions      Height: 33.5 cm (13.1 in); Width: 24.5 cm (9.6 in)
  • Museum:          Van Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

  • Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands.
  • Initially, van Gogh planned to be a pastor and worked as a lay preacher in Belgium. It was only on being let go from this job that he decided that his future lay in painting.
  • Van Gogh didn’t start painting until he was 27 years old.
  • Van Gogh never received any formal art training.
  • Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, worked in an art gallery and introduced van Gogh to many artworks.
  • Van Gogh visited many parts of Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and England.
  • Japanese woodblock prints profoundly influenced Van Gogh. He collected pictures of Japanese woodblock prints, and he practiced making copies.
  • Van Gogh had several close relationships with many fellow artists, including Paul Gaugin and Emile Bernard.
  • Van Gogh’s artistic career was only ten years.
  • Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, especially to his brother.
  • He created over 900 paintings plus many more drawings and sketches.
  • He died at the age of 37
  • As a poor artist, van Gogh didn’t have money to pay for models, so he painted himself instead. He created hundreds of self-portraits.
  • Van Gogh considered himself and many of his paintings to be failures.
  • Van Gogh cut off his ear in 1888.
  • Experts believe that that Gaugin cut off Van Gogh’s ear, following a violent dispute and that they both conspired to blame it on van Gogh so that Gaugin would not be jailed.
  • Van Gogh wrapped up his removed ear and gave it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel.
  • Van Gogh suffered mental health challenges for many years, and in 1889 he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy.
  • Van Gogh spent a year in the hospital, from which he created some of his most well-known paintings.
  • Van Gogh spent his adult life in poverty, surviving on cheap food. His diet consisted mainly of bread and coffee; he drank alcohol excessively and always had his pipe in hand.
  • After leaving the asylum, Van Gogh’s mental health continued to deteriorate, and in 1890, he shot himself in the chest. He died two days later.
  • There is speculation that Van Gogh did not shoot himself but that he was shot in a prank that went wrong. Van Gogh protected the identity of who shot him, by claiming that he shot himself.
  • Only 37 years old when he died, he had just sold one painting in his lifetime.
  • On his deathbed, van Gogh’s last words to his brother were, “the sadness will last forever.”
  • Van Gogh’s brother died very soon after Van Gogh’s death.

A Virtual Tour of the Van Gogh Museum


Grote Nachtpauwoog Vincent van Gogh 1889

Van Gogh and After



“The best way to know God is to love many things.”
– Vincent van Gogh


Photo Credit: 1) Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Entomolo / CC BY-SA (

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