No authentic history of the Papillon has yet been written. However, it seems certain that the breed developed from the Toy Spaniels popular with European Royalty and nobility from the late middle ages onward.

Peggy and Bob Russell Roberts (Picaroon) detailed a search of artworks throughout Europe with dogs similar to the Papillon and found the earliest in numerous artworks dated to the early Renaissance in Italy. Italian artists including Giotto, Piero Di Cosimo, Titian and many others painted these small companions into portraits of royalty and even religious paintings. The breed's history, as chronicled in art, suggests these small, elegant, fine boned dogs have served as  companions to the upper classes for many centuries throughout Europe.

The breed was well known in France. Papillon is French for Butterfly and refers to the very large, round, obliquely set ears, well fringed ears, which resemble the wings of a butterfly. Very early artworks primarily show the Phalene, or dropped ear variety. Phalene is the drop winged night moth. French artists such as Largilliere, Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher and others during the period between 1650-1800 painted these dogs. The portrait of Louis XIV and his heirs by Largilliere (Wallace Collection, London) is one of the clearest representations of a dog finer and daintier that the King Charles and Cavalier.