Vegder's Blog

May 24, 2015

The Dragonfly (libellule, แมลงปอ, sudenkorento, اليعسوب, yusufçuk, 蜻蜓, ważka) in Japanese art and elsewhere

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

The dragonfly, called a tombo or tonbo in Japanese, plays a remarkably diverse role in the arts and cultures of many nations. It is surprising how many. That is why I am going to start off with a Polish painting which is one of my favorite all time images and which, when I saw it reproduced for the first time in a book on European symbolism, absolutely blew my mind. I had never seen anything quite like it nor had I heard of the artist before, but it burned itself then and there into my memory.

And that ważka… Where in the hell did that come from?

The Dziwny Ogród or Strange Garden: The artist is Józef Mehoffer (1869-1946). He created one of the strangest paintings ever. It is dominated at the top center by a gigantic, humongous, otherworldly  dragonfly. One author referred to this insect as both “ludicrous and disquieting” – saugrenue et inquiétante.  See for yourself. It is in the Muzeum Narodowe or National Museum in Warsaw.

Mehoffer_Dziwny_ogrod_National_Gallery_7c   Muzeum Narodowe

Richard Brettell in his book Modern Art, 1851-1929: Capitalism and Representation says of this painting that: “Mehoffer… created the canonical image of Polish Symbolist Paintng in this work representing his wife and child with a servant.”

What do we know about this guy, Mehoffer, today? Not much. He was a professor at the Academy of Arts in Krakow. In a book published in 1906 Ludwig Hervesi wrote: “…Mehoffer is now the most powerful colourist in the monarchy.” Really? He was great, but there were others working there at the same time. Take Klimt, for example, he was only seven years or so older than Mehoffer and he wasn’t touted as the “…most powerful colourist…” Hmmm?

Before we go back to dragonflies, or get on with it at least, I would like you to see one other work by Mehoffer. “Józef Mehoffer gained international acclaim for a series of stained-glass windows he designed for the Church of Saint Nicholas in Fribourg, Switzerland, a commission he won in a prestigious competition in 1895, shortly after completing his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.” He lived and studied in Paris for several years and it shows.

Below is one example from Fribourg which shows the Martydom of St. Maurice. It is, in its own way, just as impactful as the over-sized dragonfly seen flying over the garden in Warsaw and goes a long way toward explaining Hervesi’s personal and absolutist claim about Mehoffer’s coloring skills.


Also, is it any wonder that considering the late 19th century Art Nouveau craze for dragonfly motifs that Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina, performed as ‘The Dragonfly’ in a short dance routine in 1914, set to the music of Fritz Kreisler. There is even a video of this performance at YouTube if you would care to look it up.

Anna_Pavlova_ca.1914_dragonfly_Flick_7   I found this image at Pinterest.

Marianne Craig Moore (マリアン.クレイグ.ムーア: 1887-1972), an American poet, wrote of a different dancer:

slim dragonfly
too rapid for the eye
to cage

Here is an photo of a dragonfly that I found at an Arab language web site at Pinterest – and no I don’t read Arabic – but I felt it was too good not to include on this page.

The tombo as a symbol of Japan – The earliest book in Japan was the Kojiki (古事記) which makes references to the dragonfly as an analog for this nation’s archipelago. In Chapter 5 Izanami and her brother Izanagi, the originator gods, went at it procreating what we now call Japan. Their “…eighth offspring was Heavenly-August-Sky-Luxuriant-Dragonfly-Lord-Youth. This was the Lord of the Dragonfly Isle.” After that she gave birth to fire which so damaged her system that the only gods born after that came from her vomit, urine, and excrement. Then she died. Can you blame her?

In Chapter 130 the emperor Yūryaku went hunting and as he was sitting on his dais a horsefly bit his arm. “Immediately a dragonfly came and devoured the horsefly, then flew away.” The Emperor then wrote a song to commemorate this event. The last words read:

Thus, in order to perpetuate
The memory of this event,
Is the sky-filled
Land of Yamatö called
The Dragonfly Island

The second earliest book in Japan was the Nihongi. In it Jimmu, who reigned from 673-86, has gone out to view the land. He observed:

“Oh! what a beautiful country we have become possessed of! Though a blessed land of inner-tree-fibre, yet it resembles a dragon-fly licking its hinder parts” From this it first received the name of Akitsu-shima.

Herbert E. Plutschow notes in his Chaos and Cosmos: Ritual in Early and Medieval Japanese Literature noted that “The use of the dragonfly in the name given to the land may have come from the custom of divining fertility by the abundance of dragonflies, believed to eat insects that damage crops.”

The Man’yōshū or (万葉集) ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’ is “The oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry and the most highly revered today.” One poem in this anthology is attributed to the father of the emperor Temmu. It ends with:

what a splendid land,
       the dragonfly island,
the land of Yamato

怜[忄可] 國曽

umasikuni so
yamato no kuni pa

Carl J. Becker in his A Modern Theory of Language Evolution notes that “Chinese historical records observed that by the year AD 670 the Japanese had changed the name of their country from Dragonfly Isle to the land of the rising sun, Nippon, with the emperor being the Son of Heaven.”

The tombo in Japanese prints, drawings and paintings 

Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉:  1644-94) wrote:

A dragonfly
trying to subdue

a grassblade

BM_Chosui_1860_aka_tombo_7   © Trustees of the British Museum – this is a surimono from 1860. It was designed by Chosui, an artist I am totally unfamiliar with, but I really like this print. It illustrates a point made in the Encyclopedia of Insects (p. 46): “Most Zygoptera (damselflies) and the dragonfly (Anisoptera) family Aeshnidae are mainly climbers or clingers, lurking in vegetation or resting on stems of aquatic plants.” You will see that I have posted other examples of this lower down on this page.

Speaking of Bashō and haiku and dragonflies – Conrad Totman repeats a remarkable encounter between Bashō and one of his students. “While walking through a field with Bashō one day, his student Kikaku was inspired by the darting dragonflies to compose this verse:

Red dragonflies!
Take off their wings,
and they are pepper pods!

Bashō is said to have exclaimed, “No! That is not haiku. If you wish to make a haiku on the subject, you must say:

Red pepper pods!
Add wings to them,
and they are dragonflies!

Next is a print which shows Kiyochika’s wit and skill  – traits which are not totally appreciated today. Not that his market value is too low… He does have his advocates and fans, but he is not completely accepted by all ‘traditionalists’. He was born too late, into a period viewed as the an age of decline in ukiyo-e. That wasn’t his fault. Perhaps he was a little too innovative for collectors who were stuck in the past.

Born in 1847 into a samurai family which had been in the service of the Tokugawa shoguns for ages, a tradition which was in its final days. He died in 1915 after a period of great change, change which he adapted to remarkably well. Below is one of those examples of his incredible ability to think in new ways. It definitely shows the influence of European art and its un-Japanese techniques.

Henry D. Smith II wrote of this print:”Chickens and Dragonfly“… is a witty print in the playful spirit of Cat and Lantern. [I have linked this to my Sheer post. You will find this image toward the bottom of that page.] Against the backdrop of a crumbling storehouse covered with vines are two chickens perplexed by a single dragonfly – the rooster by the insect itself, and the hen by its shadow on the ground. It is not clear whether the idea was Kiyochika’s own, but the print certainly expresses the humorous side of his character…”


There is a painting by Kishi Ganku (岸岸駒: 1749-1838) in the collection of the Freer/Sackler galleries in D.C. which basically deals with the same theme as the Kiyochika print seen above. However, it is probably 80 to 100 years older. The difference – here the chicken has actually caught a real dragonfly an is about to feed it to one of her chicks.

FS_Ganku_rooster_hen_chicks_tombo_7c   Freer/Sackler Galleries

The tombo in Japanese drawings and watercolors – 

There is something terribly appealing to me about drawings and sketches. They are often first thoughts, as can be seen in this hodge-podge of images on a sheet of paper, ascribed to the school of or style of Hokusai. Not only does it include a tombo hovering atop the end of a reed, but also flowers, a scissors, a thread and a tied packet of papers or is it a love letter.

BM_Hokusai_school_sketch_tombo_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

Below is another sketch said to be by Hokusai. For the life of me, I think it is from the British Museum, too, but I am not 100% sure. Bear with me please until I work this one out. It does appear to have a British Museum stamp on it in the lower left.

BM_Hokusai_tombo_sketch_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum (?)

Lafcadio Hearn wrote about a personal experience he had while living in Japan.

“The third visit was that of a deputation of children asking for some help to celebrate fittingly the festival of Jizō, who has a shrine on the other side of the street, exactly opposite my house. I was very glad to contribute to their fund, for I love the gentle god, and I knew the festival would be delightful. Early next morning, I saw that the shrine had already been decked with flowers and votive lanterns. A new bib had been put about Jizō’s neck, and a Buddhist repast set before him. Later on, carpenters constructed a dancing-platform in the temple court for the children to dance upon ; and before sundown the toy-sellers had erected and stocked a small street of booths inside the precincts. After dark I went out into a great glory of lantern fires to see the children dance, and I found, perched before my gate, an enormous dragonfly more than three feet long. It was a token of the children’s gratitude for the little help I had given them, — a kazari, a decoration. I was startled for the moment by the realism of the thing; but upon close examination I discovered that the body was a pine branch wrapped with colored paper, the four wings were four fire-shovels, and the gleaming head was a little teapot. The whole was lighted by a candle so placed as to make extraordinary shadows, which formed part of the design. It was a wonderful instance of art sense working without a speck of artistic material, yet it was all the labor of a poor little child only eight years old!”

The tombo on Japanese clothing

MFA_dragonfly_obi_7 – Narrow obi or sash of embroidered silk from either the 18th or 19th century. Below is an enlarged a detail.

Izumi Kyōka’s (泉鏡花: 1873-1939) last masterpiece is a story called ‘Rukō shinsō’ (縷紅新草), the ‘Heartvine’. “…the story of a girl from a samurai family who after the Restoration comes to work in an embroidery workshop. A timid girl, she drowns herself after being picked on by other girls for embroidering a pair of dragonflies in crimson and silver thread.” Quoted from: A History of Japanese Literature: From the Man’yōshū to Modern Times.


In a Kunisada print from ca. 1827 an elegant oiran or high-ranking courtesan, the highest at that time, is parading in her finest finery in a series entitled ‘A Contest of Present-day Beauties’. Although she is dressed warmly in layers – a sign that it is a colder season – one of the outermost robes looks like a type of gauzy fabric worn mainly in the summer, which is delicately displaying a dragonfly motif. My supposition is that, unlike the embroidered obi seen above, these tombo would have been painted onto the surface – possibly initially using a katagami or paper stencil. This print is also from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

MFA_oiran_Kunisada_kimono_dragonfly_design_7b – Notice that there are two other design motifs on the print which I have dedicated posts to in this blog: the toshidama cartouche in the upper right which gives the title of this series and the bat (flying at night) in the fan design just to the left of that.

The coming of autumn
is determined
by a red dragonfly

Shirao (1738-91)

In the uncut and unmounted fan print by Toyokuni III there is a fellow, in a light summer robe decorated with dragonflies. Clearly here the motif matches the season.

NDL_dragonflies_Japanese_fan_actor_7b   National Diet Library

The curious case of chapter 52 of The Tale of Genji – kagerō (蜉蝣)

MFA_Toyokuni_III_print_with_dragonfly_on_fan_7b   MFA_Toyokuni_III_print_with_dragonfly_on_fan_7_detail

Last week I read a review by Ian Buruma in the New Yorker of a new translation of The Tale of Genji. That was the same issue that had the story of what would happen to Seattle and the Puget Sound area when the big quake finally comes. It put the scare in a lot of local residents. Haven’t read the article yet, but I keep hearing a quote from one of the world’s experts on earthquakes that everything west of I-5 will be toast. I live west of I-5. Not only that, I live on a bluff that I would guestimate is about 150′ above the water and I live on the second floor. I will be toast. But I diverge… What I need to get back to is a brief discussion about the English language translations of The Tale of Genji. And there have been quite a few of them, but let’s focus on just three – the ones by Waley (’25), Seidensticker (’76) and Royall Tyler (2001). [I gave Tyler’s full name there just because I just like the sound of it.]

Google translates 蜉蝣 as either ephemeral or May fly. Tangorin, another great translation site, gives it as ‘mayfly’ – one word – or ephemeropteran. It also points out that kagerō, as an archaism, it can mean dragonfly or damselfly. Breen’s Monash University site agrees with Tangorin. Waley calls it the gossamer-fly, Seidensticker refers to it as the drake fly and for Tyler it is the mayfly. Confused? You aren’t alone.

Tyler notes at the beginning of this chapter that: “The kagerō (“mayfly”) hatches in summer and dies only a a few hours later. The chapter title comes from the chapter’s closing poem, by Kaoru.”

There it is, just there, ye ever beyond my reach, till I look once more,
and it is gone, the mayfly never to be seen again.

Then at the very end of the chapter Kaoru mumbles under his breath: “It might not be there at all…”

None of this niggling would matter except that when I did a search of museum collections for images of dragonflies occasionally Genji prints loosely based on this chapter would show up, like the woodblock print by Toyokuni III from 1854. Besides, the faux Genji is holding a fan decorated with these creatures.

There is another print in the same collection, this time from 1865 and by Kunisada II, which again features a fan decorated with kagerō.


More tombo fans

For the life of me, I don’t remember where I found this fan design by Utamaro. I try to be careful about such things and give credit where credit is due, but sometimes I screw up. Modest dyslexia, age, carelessness, distractions – I don’t know why? But, in any case, I apologize for my mistake. However, I just felt this fan print was too good not to include here. Based in the iconography, it would appear to be Yamauba holding a rambunctious Kintaro who is reaching for a dragonfly which appears to be tethered to a string. Is this a toy? Is it meant to represent a snared live dragonfly or simply an artful copy?


Here is a Kuniyoshi fan print of a beauty with tombo.

springfiled_Kuniyoshi_bijin_tombo_fan_7_2c   Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts

Below is a Chinese fan painting by Ren Yi (任頤: 1840-96) in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

In China: “The dragon-fly, an emblem of summer, and symbol of instability and weakness, provides a popular motif for poets and painters of the Flowery Land.

It is sometimes known as the typhoon-fly, owing to the presence of the insect in large numbers before a storm. The Chinese believe that insects are excited and impregnated by the wind. Hence the written form for wind (風) contains the character ch’ung (虫), insect.

A slang term for the dragon-fly is ‘Old Glassy’ (老玻璃), from the vitreous appearance of its large transparent and reticulated wings.” Quoted from: Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives.

TNM_Chinese_Ren_Yi_1882_fan_tombo_7b   Tokyo National Museum

Tombo images on katagami used for fabric designs


The tombo in Japanese decorative arts

I can’t tell you why but some of the finest examples of tombo I could find are on Japanese inrō. Maybe you won’t agree with me, but I think many of these works of art – some call it ‘craft’ – are among the most beautiful items to be found anywhere. I will be adding quite a few of them to this page in the future. If for no other reason, this should keep you coming back to see if there are any new ones shown here. Today, May 27, 2015, I will be adding one from the Musée Guimet of a red tombo caught in a spider web. It is breathtaking, indeed.

Below is an inrō bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer in 1929. It is thought to date from the 19th century and is made of colored lacquers and sprinkled with powdered gold dust. Also, if you look closely you will see that the ojime (緒締め) or bead which holds the cord just above the top of the inrō has been carved with a dragonfly on it, too.


There is an almost identical version of this inrō in the Tokyo National Museum, but I chose the one at the Met to show here because I like it better.

Guimet_aka_tombo_spiderweb_7   Musée Guimet

VAM_inro_18thc_dragonflies_7   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Is this next one the best of the best of the tombo inrō? Is there a best of the best? Not really, because everything is subjective. But if there was one that was, this one would certainly be in the running. It comes from the collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The curatorial files say of it:

“This highly significant inro raises the entire tenor of LACMA’s collection of this wearable art. The inro was crafted by Iizuka Toyosai, an attendant to the Hachisuka fief lord from Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. Toyosai was among the rare craftsmen who through his high level of talent achieved samurai status. His designs were based on paintings by the Kano school, artists to the shogunate, and by the sinophile literati school of artists…. This ethereal image represents a scene in the summer months, and therefore would have been donned during that season. Toyosai applied the lacquer design using togidashi technique, in which after 30 layers of lacquer have been applied and polished, a design is sprinkled on in gold, silver, and colored powders of varying fineness and density, adhered with wet lacquer, then this design is covered over with a few layers of lacquer the same color as the background. Once polymerized in a warm, humid chamber, these overlayers are polished down to reveal the design…. Yoyusai’s [sic] stunning work in lacquer often followed the Rimpa style of painting and design, and he worked personally with Sakai Hoitsu (1761-1828)…. Inro evolved as part of a man’s dress in the 17th century, fulfilling a need to carry seals or medicines on one’s person in the absence of clothing with pockets. By the mid-18th century, their use as carriers for pharmacopeia was established, due to their airtight construction, though by the 19th century, men tended to wear them empty, like jewelry. None of the inro in LACMA’s collection show any sign of having been used to hold contents, and so were probably only employed to reveal the taste of the wearer”


The reference to the ‘sinophile literati school of artists’ mentioned above would base some of their works on earlier Chinese examples. Below is a detail from a painting by Xu Shian from the 17th century. It represents just such a model.

Guimet_Xu_Shian_tombo_7   Musée Guimet

Combing Japan for tombo

Guimet_tombo_lacquer_comb_8   Musée Guimet

The tombo as a symbol of the Japanese warrior

MMA_16thc_tsuba_dragonfly_7c – A 16th century iron and copper tsuba made in the tōshō style.

Dragonfly on a rock –
absorbed in

a daydream

Santōka (1882-1940)

MFA_tsuba_tombo_Edo_period_7b – an iron and copper tsuba from the Edo period

Worth noting: I thought I would throw this in here, just because I can – “As adults, [dragonflies] could beat their two uncoupled pairs of wings independently, an ability that makes the dragonfly a marvel of flight engineering and a master of the air. It can pursue insect prey at high speeds (35 miles per hour or more, in some species). It can change course 180 degrees in a flash. It can hover.”

MFA_Murakami_Jochiku_tsuba_late_18thc_7b – tsuba by Jochiku

MFA_tsuba_tombo_mid19thc_7b – mid-19th century

In Out of the EastI, originally published in 1897, Lafcadio Hearn wrote:

“Perhaps you like the dragon-flies,” I suggested. “They are flashing all around us; but they make no sound.”
“Every Japanese likes dragon-flies,” said Kuma-shiro. “Japan, you know, is called Akitsusu, which means the Country of the Dragon-Fly.
We talked about different kinds of dragon-flies; and they told me of one I had never seen, — the Shoro-tombo, or ” Ghost dragonfly,” said to to have some strange relation to the dead. Also they spoke of the Yamma — a very large kind of dragon-fly, and related that in certain old songs the samurai were called Yamma, because the long hair of a young warrior used to be tied up into a knot in the shape of a dragon-fly.

Below is an unsigned 19th century kozuka (小柄) or blade fitting.


Iwakuni_Art_Museum_tombo_kabuto_7b   Iwakuni Art Museum – Edo period – The spikes are meant as substitutes for the long, narrow leaves of a particular type of iris, a masculine symbol. Young boys use the leaves of irises as swords. They were also bathed in water infused with irises. This was meant to give them greater strength. “The dragonfly [on the front] was particularly admired among the samurai because when it hunts, it flies directly forward, never deviating in its path, and therefore known as hachi-mushi (“victorious insect”).”

MIA_dragonfly_helmet_17thc_7   Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The curatorial files for this 17th century helmet note that “During the 15th and 16th centuries, Japan’s feudal families vied for supremacy, amassing vast armies to ensure their dominion and to conquer weaker neighbors. High-ranking lords began to embellish their helmets with sculptural forms so that they could be visually located on the battlefield. Exotic helmets (kawari kabuto) also allowed leaders to choose symbolic motifs for their helmets that reflected some aspect of their personality or that of their collective battalions. This helmet is shaped like a giant dragonfly. In Japan, the dragonfly is symbolic of focused endeavor and vigilance because of its manner of moving up, down and sideways while continuing to face forward. In addition, in ancient texts Japan was often referred to as Akitsushima (Land of the Dragonflies), because of their abundance. They were also thought to be the spirits of rice, since they are often to be found hovering above the flooded rice fields.”

Below is a 19th century kozuka made by Goto Seijo. This piece measures only 3 3/8″ long. Imagine! My opinion: it doesn’t get better than this.


In the Tokyo National Museum is an Edo period kura (鞍) or saddle. Remarkable.

TNM_saddle_tombo_7   Tokyo National Museum

“Mōri Motonari [毛利元就: 1497-1571], in the 16th century, was approaching a battle when he is said to have, at a river bank, seen a dragonfly alight on a water plantain. Since a dragonfly was known as the victory insect, he took this as a positive sign and continued he took this as a positive sign and continued on to lead his men on to lead his men to victory. He then commemorated this event by adopting a water-plantain mon.” Quoted from: O-umajirushi: A 17th-Century Compendium of Samurai Heraldry.

Iwakuni_Art_Museum_tombo_saddle_7b   Iwakuni Art Museum – Edo period – This saddle was only for show and not for use.

The tombo in the European Renaissance style – In the Bibliothèque nationale de France is the Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany. It is the only firmly documented work by Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1472-1521). Although it is French it is done, very much so, in the Italian style. It is “…one of the loveliest of all Books of Hours. It contains numerous exquisite borders of plants and insects…” with a number of pages exhibiting different types of dragonflies in individual pages.

But first, here is another one of my pesky side notes: Anne of Brittany (アンヌ・ド・ブルターニュ: 1477-1514) was married twice and both times to kings of France. Now that doesn’t happen every day.

BNF_Bourdichon_Anne_Hours_dragonfly_7b   Bibliothèque nationale de France

“About ten manuscripts, all with floral borders, are ascribed to Bourdichon. One of these is in the British Museum (Add M.S. 18855) ;
but the finest is the celebrated Book of Hours made for Anne of Brittany between 1500 and 1508, and now in the Bibliotheque Nationale,
Paris. We must pass over its attractive subject miniatures and turn to the borders. Upon gilded rectangles, and forced into high relief by
strong shading, are portrayed in gouache more than three hundred and forty plants, named in French and Latin, chosen from the local
flora and familiar garden flowers of Touraine. It has been rather frivolously said of them that they constitute” a seeds man’s illustrated
catalogue”; besides being objects of considerable beauty, they certainly do form a valuable early florilegium.”

Quoted from: The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History by Wilfred Blunt and Thomas Stearn

BNF_Bourdichon_Anne_Hours_tombo_7c   Bibliothèque nationale de France

Tombo on glass (or under it) – either way it is amazing

Two of the most remarkable examples of searching out dragonfly images while working on this post were both items which related to paintings on glass. Both are old and one of them comes from the collection of Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is one of the most inexplicable works of art I have ever come across. It reminds me of one of those old slides prepared for examination under a microscope. The artist is unknown and so are his motives. It is dated to ca. 1650-75.

Rijksmuseum_anonymous_Italian_ca._1650_paint_on_glass_tombo_7b   Rijksmuseum

A striking similarity is a this next piece: a damselfly preserved in amber. According to the post this example is approximately 45,000,000 years old. Is that all?



This next example of stained glass is even stranger -if such a thing is possible. It dates from the late 16th to early 17th century and is said to be of Dutch origin. It shows a large, horned goat – a symbol of Satan? – with a long embroidered clerical cloth – a priest’s stole? – draped across its back. What is so disconcerting is that it appears that this goat is being dive-bombed by a gigantic dragonfly. Shades of Mehoffer? One question: Is this juxtaposition meant to have a meaning? On this matter I am clueless. However, at one point, something did occur to me: both the goat and the dragonfly in medieval, European iconography could be inserted as stand-ins for Satan. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in that concept.

Renaissance_museum_bouc_et_libellule_7   Musée national de la Renaissance, Ecouen

One more thing, before we leave the goat and the dragonfly: About a year and a half ago some friends of mine bought me a subscription to the New York magazine, ignoring the fact that I may be one of the world’s slowest readers. No ‘may be’ about it. I am. Anyway, as the magazines pile up for eventual perusal, I do generally look at the three cartoons offered on the back page. They form a witty contest for their readers. Bizarre and often discordant, they are placed there without captions and the public is asked to write in and give their suggestions for what they should be. That is what I am asking you to do now. Give me a caption for the goat and dragonfly image shown above. I am sure it would be better than anything I might come up with. You won’t win anything tangible, but you might just get pride of place and my eternal gratitude. Thanks!

The tombo as  represented by other European artists –

First let’s start off with a very, very Renaissance painting by the Master of St. Giles from ca. 1500 in the Met shows the Virgin holding the Christ child holding a dragonfly.


The curatorial files for the Met state: “The dragonfly is symbolic of the Devil, here subdued by Christ, who through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection triumphed over Satan.”


In 1584 Hans Hoffmann (1530 – 1592) created a beautiful watercolor and gouache drawing referred to as ‘A Small Piece of Turf’. I know next to nothing about Hoffmann, but I do rank him in the same rarefied group as his predecessor Dürer (1471-1528) when it comes to studies of nature. Even the Getty Museum curatorial files second my opinion of this artist: “When veneration of the late Albrecht Dürer’s art led to a flurry of activity copying his paintings, drawings, and prints in the late 1500s, Hans Hoffmann was the leading representative of the “Dürer Renaissance.” Hoffmann’s imitations were so admired that a biographer described him as “a diligent painter . . . who copied Albrecht Dürer so assiduously that many of his works were sold as Dürer originals…. Hoffmann’s nature studies have earned him consideration as one of Germany’s first still-life painters. He often made several copies and different versions of a single drawing, signing one with his own monogram and another with Dürer’s.”


Then there is the 1594 engraving by Nicolas de Bruyn (1571 – 1652) filled with symbolism, but what it is I don’t know. In it is shows puppies, putti, a bee, a butterfly, a frog, and a dragonfly.

Ecouen_Nicholas_de_Bruyn_tombo_cupids_puppies_butterfly_7   Musée national de la Renaissance, Ecouen

The tombo and the Nouveau craze

Below is an elaborate hairpin of dragonflies by Lucien Gaillard (1861-1933). I found this example at Pinterest although I know there is a copy in the Rijksmuseum. Note that the wings are made of plique-à-jour enamel with horn, enameled bodies, emeralds, natural pearls, diamonds and a large mounted citrine.

It is a gift fit for a queen.


The tombo on American silver and other decorative arts

Orsay_Tiffany_ca.1878_Chandler_silver_pitcher_dragonfly_7   Musée d’Orsay – a Tiffany pitcher designed in ca. 1878 by Edward Chandler Moore (1827-91)

Another Tiffany silver piece, this one a vase, from the collection of the Walters Museum of Art, shows dragonflies as handles.

Walters_ca.1879_Tiffany_silver_vase_tombo_7d   Walters Museum of Art

Clare Phillips noted that: “It was for Louisine [Havemeyer] that Tiffany in 1904 designed an extraordinarily sculptural hair ornament composed of two dragonflies resting on a pair of dandelion seed balls…” Phillips added later that: “The wings are so delicate in their gossamer-like filigree that they were considered ‘too delicate, in fact, for any of the usual jewelry metals and therefore, made of a special alloy of iridium and platinum having great strength.” The wings on these dragonflies may have been meant to be en tremlant for greater truth to nature.

One other subtle, but amazing touch to these pieces, is that, like real dandelion puff balls, the one on the left is partially blown away.


AIC_hanging_head_dragonfly_Tiffany_lamp_7   ©The Art Institute of Chicago

The curatorial notes on this Tiffany Studios lamp seen above say: “Clara Driscoll, head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, was likely responsible for this shade and base. Driscoll began working for Tiffany in 1888, and she designed the majority of the firm’s lamps before she left the company in 1908 or 1909. Driscoll created at least eight dragonfly shades. Among these, this example is distinguished by its large size, glass cabochons, and the placement of insects’ bodies along the lower edge. While Tiffany Studios mass-produced these shades and bases, the firm varied the color scheme of each object to heighten the sense of handcraftsmanship. This daring design became one of Tiffany’s most popular and was made through 1924.”

MMA_Fulper_1910_1915_ceramic_lamp_with_glass_insets_dragonfly_7e – A Fulper ceramic lamp with glass insets forming a dragonfly in the shade. Dated 1910-15.

The tombo as a glass hood ornament, a bouchon de radiateur

One of the most surprising bits of research I have found is the glass radiator caps made by René Lalique (ルネ・ラリック: 1860-1945) for high-end cars starting in the 1920s and continued into the 30s. They are referred to mascots and include such creatures as galloping horses, eagle heads and even one of a fit looking naked woman on her knees bending backward.. Several of these creations are dragonflies. Below is one such example. Stunningly beautiful, in my opinion – if not to say, a bit creepy.


Peter Card in his Motor Car Mascots and Badges (p. 36) says: “It was not until 1925 that Lalique turned his attention to bouchons de radiateur, or radiator stoppers, when he was commissioned to design a glass mascot for the Citroën company’s Cinq Chevaux-Vapeur model. The pleasing result was a daring display of ingenuity, depicting five horses in bas-relief, and it was so uniformly popular that elegant French society used this device on country and town cars of every size and distinction. Over thirty further designs in the then highly fashionable Art Deco style were developed during the next six years. These ranged in appearance from a prancing fox to the erotic ‘Chrysis’ and ‘Vitesse‘ female nudes. Some of these mascots were offered in coloured glass rather than clear, Lalique’s catalogue listing a choice of green, electric blue, mauve and grey.” Card goes on to note that “Glass mascots were criticised by purists who disliked their overt opulence, particularly when illuminated from below.”

There are several of these mascots in the Toyota Automobile Museum in Japan. They date the dragonfly to 1928. I wish I knew which car this was made for but the notes for these pieces in this collection state that the only one made for a particular car was the first one, the Citroën 5CV.

I found a Citroën 5CV Torpedo posted at commons.wikimedia by Lars-Göran Lindgren of Sweden. While it doesn’t appear that the bouchon de radiateur is made of glass, at least it shows us what one of these models looked like – there were several variations. You can’t see it in this photo, but these cars have a metal crank attached to the front of the car, below the radiator and right above the license plate. This makes me laugh as if I could see Buster Keaton out there trying to get one started or keep it going that way.

Imagine “just tooling along in my Citroën 5CV” with its glass mascot, beep, beep!


Did Manet, Whistler or Picasso ever draw tombo? You betcha!

Achenbach_ca.1875_Manet_dragonfly_7b   1874 etching by Edouard Manet in the collection of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts – Several authors have noted the influence of Hokusai’s manga on Manet’s style at this time. Manet created 8 prints to go with the poems of a friend. This was the frontispiece.

Achenbach_Picasso_tombo_7b   Aquatint and drypoint by Picasso (1881-1973)  in the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts – printed in 1936, but only published in 1942. Illustration to the Natural History of the Comte de Buffon (1707-88).

Whistlers_Mother_dragonfly_7b   James MacNeill Whistler’s painting of his mother – an arrangement in grey and black from 1871 – Musée d’Orsay

Whistlers_Mother_dragonfly_7_dragonfly_signature2   Detail of his signature which some say is a dragonfly. It appears in the upper right region of the black drapery on the left. It is striking how close Whistler’s seal is to an ancient Minoan seal from ca. 1600 BC in the collection of the British Museum.

BM_1600_BC_Minoan_tonbo_seal_7   © Trustees of the British Museum

A side note: It has been speculated that the dragonfly in ancient Minoan culture may represent a goddess, hence the female element. In one seal fragment from Zakros a huge dragonfly hovers over a bull, the symbol of the male element. The symbology is lost on us today, but clearly it meant something to the ancient Cretans.

Jeffrey S. Soles has written:

Dragonflies have multiple meanings in different cultures; in some they are symbols of immortality, in others the souls of the dead;
in Minoan Crete they are clearly associated with the Minoan goddess, and so the iconography of the bead is the most useful factor
in its interpretation. The Theran fresco of the goddess from Xeste 3 depicts her wearing a necklace of just such dragonflies, three of
gold and two of silver.  They are all pierced through the head just like the Mochlos bead and strung on what appears to be a gold chain.
The dragonfly necklace, another necklace of duck-shaped beads that she wears, and the coiled snake that appears on her head are
sometimes said to symbolize the three zones of earth, sea and air over which she rules. The dragonfly, often misidentified as a butterfly,
also appears in association with the goddess in gold signet rings. On a ring from Archanes depicting the epiphany of the goddess, 
 two dragonflies flutter in the air in front of the goddess who has appeared miraculously out of thin air probably in response to the baetyl
and tree worship depicted on either side of the scene. On a sealing from Hagia Triada, probably made with a gold signet ring, two more
appear in the air together with a sacral knot and a floating snake, both also associated with the goddess, and also in response to the baetyl
worship taking place to one side of the scene.
Note: A baetyl is a meteoric rock that was thought to be of divine origin and therefore was worshiped.
One more thought about Whistler’s use of the tombo as a substitution for his signature –
The chronology of Whistler’s working methods can be a bit tricky. When he set the original idea down to canvas or paper or plate is occasionally problematic. In the Freer/Sackler is a painting he started in 1864, but did not put the finishing touches on until 1879. It is the Balcony: Variations in Flesh Colour and Green. Painted in London, it has a very Japanese(y) feel to it. But that isn’t what draws me. Of course, I do like/love it, as I do most things Whistlerian, but it is his early use of his ‘logo’ that I find most striking: for all intents and purposes, it looks like a dragonfly at the top of a very blank Japanese-like signature cartouche. See for yourself.
Freer_Whistler_Flesh_Green_tombo_signature_7b   Freer/Sackler Galleries   Freer_Whistler_Flesh_Green_tombo_signature_detail_7b
The first mention of the tombo (aka dragonfly) in English

In 1626 Francis Bacon (1561-1626) published his Sylva sylvarum, or, A Natural History, in Ten Centuries and in it is the first reference to dragonflies in the English language. Fortunately we still own copies of that book and fortunately we now have reproductions of the original publication online. Below is a bookplate showing a portrait of this great man and below that is a image of that text from the very bottom of page 153 and the top of the next page.



Oklahoma 1940: The major tombo discovery

Harvard_Meganeuropsis americana_1940_7b   Harvard Museumof Natural History

Above is a photo of a fossilized tombo, Meganeuropsis americana, found in 1940 in the plains of Oklahoma by the Harvard curator of fossils, Frank M. Carpenter. The wing span was nearly two and a half feet – like that of the dragonfly in the Mehoffer painting at the top of this page. Some of these pre-historic insects may have been among the largest to have ever lived on earth. Of course, that includes the nine foot long millipede.

According to an article in the ‘Harvard Magazine’, November-December 2007: “This formidable creature lived during the Permian period, from 290 million to 248 million years ago, before birds existed, even before dinosaurs, when amphibians were the dominant life form. Parts of Oklahoma and Kansas were a tropical coastal wetland, alternately brackish and then fresh as the epeiric [i.e., continental] sea withdrew. Meganeuropsis swooped over the swamps, snatching insects from the air and seizing small amphibians.”

The Encyclopedia of Insects notes: “During these prehistoric [Carboniferous or Permian] times, the atmospheric oxygen concentration was much higher (up to about 35%) than the present level (20.9%), which may have allowed sufficient oxygen to reach the innermost tissues of very large insects. However, such an oxygen-rich atmosphere also would have augmented aerodynamic properties in early flying insects. It has been suggested that later appearing insects could not evolve to a large size because of competition for niches with birds and other later appearing animals.”

Going forward a few tens of millions of years: the tombo in ancient Egypt

Below is a low relief detail from the tomb of Kagemni at Saqqara in Egypt. It dates from ca. 2280 BCE. Kagemni was the prime minister to king Snofru.


Other extraneous tombo notes –

V.S. Pritchett (1900-97), after visiting Lichfield in Staffordshire, commented on the statues of three of its famous sons. He described James Boswell (ジェームズ·ボズウェル: 1740-95) as “…a greater writer than either [Samuel Johnson or George Fox], vain as a dragon fly.”


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!


  1. This is wonderful! You have all kinds of things I haven’t seen before. You really bring dragonflies to life, all that they are. I knew the Minneapolis Museum’s dragonfly samurai helmet, but not the other one. [Also] …how’s this for your dragonfly/goat caption: You stole my stole!

    Comment by Carol Adderley — September 8, 2015 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  2. Just a correction: the Permian ended around 252 million years ago, not 70 million years ago.

    Comment by Guilherme — February 24, 2016 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

    • Dear Guilherme,

      Thank you so much for pointing this out to me. Of course you are right. Since I self-edit I have no one else to blame for such a glaring mistake. I would fire myself if I could, but I need the work. If you see any other mistakes please let me know.


      Jerry V.

      Comment by vegder — February 24, 2016 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

  3. Hello again, you know about the dragonfly in Japanese art far more than I, an ex-student of Japanese art history!
    I would like to let you know only one information on a French book on Japanse waka-poem with the dragonfly’ s design. The author is Judith Gautier, a daughter of T. Gautier and the illustrator is YAMAMOTO Hosui.

    Although I asked a French who likes reading if he knew about this book, he did not. I wish this information is useful for you, an excellent blog-writer.

    I would like to copy and paste your URL to an article of my blog in French (sometimes in English).

    Comment by snowdrop — August 13, 2016 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

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