James E. Buttersworth (1817–1894)
When speaking of the dynamism of James E. Buttersworth’s marine subjects, Richard Grassby, author of the monograph devoted to the artist wrote, “In his narrative action, Buttersworth not only encapsulated the key moment of drama, but implied what came before and what followed.” The same can be said of what these brilliant paintings reveal about the artist himself. Little is known of Buttersworth before the key moment of his career when he began creating his immaculately composed marine subjects and was considered America’s leading nineteenth-century marine painter. What the paintings imply of “what came before,” however, is that Buttersworth was born with extraordinary artistic talent. It is suspected that he descended from a family that practiced marine art in the Isle of Wright and London and that his father was Thomas Buttersworth, an English painter who exhibited his “sea pieces” at London galleries between 1797 and 1827.
Buttersworth’s paintings also suggest that he was influenced by J.M.W. Turner, the Dutch Old Masters, and Giovanni Canaletto. Buttersworth’s works portray the turbulent atmospheres and dramatic sea incidents of the latter two, while his riveting, uninterrupted perspective and linear draftsmanship share similarities with the compositions of Canaletto. Buttersworth emigrated from England to America at some point between 1845 and 1848 and gained tremendous prominence, especially during the 1850s, for his New York harbor yachting scenes, storm scenes, and clipper, packet, steamship, and steamboat subjects, as well as for his seascapes and portscapes. It can also be surmised that Buttersworth was influenced by Hudson River School artists, most notably, Sanford R. Gifford, John F. Kensett, Alfred T. Bricher, and Francis Silva, as well as Fitz Hugh Lane, Robert Salmon, and William Bradford, particularly in his evocation of light and evanescent atmosphere.
In terms of “what followed” from the great success Buttersworth enjoyed during his day, the famed printmakers Currier and Ives recognized the popular appeal of Buttersworth and disseminated chromolithographs after his works. Buttersworth is still recognized today as the major ship painter of his period; and his works can now be found in several prominent public and private collections including the Amon Carter Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, Museum of the City of New York, New Orleans Museum of Art, Butler Institute of American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Peabody Essex Museum, Fogg Art Gallery, Newark Museum, and the New York State Historical Association.
Richard S. Grassby, Ship, Sea and Sky: The Marine Art of James Edward Buttersworth (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), p. 46.
Grassby, pp. 29–30.