James E. Buttersworth (1817–1894)

He was one of the last and the best of a long roll of American ship and yacht portraitists. Such painting is a valuable expression of the ambitions, industry, and competitive pleasures in nineteenth-century America.(1)

By Chelsea DeLay

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Notes
VI. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Born in 1817, in England’s Middlesex County, James Edward Buttersworth was regarded as a leading marine painter during the nineteenth century. It is widely accepted that he was related to Thomas Buttersworth, a respected English artist who also specialized in naval scenes, from whom he most likely inherited his appreciation for maritime painting. By the time he was twenty-years-old, Buttersworth had moved to London to pursue painting professionally; his early approach maintained the influences of Thomas Buttersworth and the English tradition, seen in his use of pale greens and grays for painting water, as well as a meticulous attention to detail that would develop into a characteristic element of his style.(2)

In 1838, he married Ann Plowman in a local church two months after their first child was born, and over the next seven years, the couple had three more children. Shortly after the birth of his fourth child in 1845, James and his family made the trans-Atlantic move to the United States, where they briefly resided in Manhattan before settling in West Hoboken, New Jersey by 1850.(3) In the following decade, Buttersworth gained significant artistic exposure with American audiences when he exhibited and subsequently sold his marine scenes at the American Art Union, in addition to having many of his paintings reproduced as lithographic prints by Currier & Ives. The wide circulation of his work was instrumental in establishing Buttersworth’s strong reputation as a leading marine artist; he became known for his detailed portrayals of vessels in the New York Harbor, especially his portraits of steamships, naval frigates, yachts, clippers, and racing crafts.(4)

Buttersworth’s arrival to the United States was well-timed with a great period of progress and development in the American maritime industry; his home in West Hoboken provided the perfect viewpoint from which he could observe the waters of the nation’s busiest port—the New York Harbor. He painted America’s Cup races and historic naval engagements, and was a master at emphasizing the power, speed, and beauty of sailing vessels and often chose to incorporate stormy skies and churning waters for a heightened sense of drama. His career spanned nearly sixty years and the breadth of his oeuvre encapsulates an important period of our country’s maritime history. Renowned American art historian and collector John Wilmerding credits Buttersworth as a leading nineteenth-century marine painter, noting, “The artist is one of the few who could…go beyond ship portraiture to portray a scene of a larger environment and mood. Buttersworth was preeminent in creating the popular image of the clipper as the sovereign of the seas.”(5)

II. Chronology

1817 Born in Middlesex County, England
1838 Daughter Ann born in August, marries her mother, Ann Plowman, in London in October
1841 First son James Junior is born May 16
1842 Second son William born September 3
1845 Third son Edward born July 19
1849 Settles in lower west side of New York City
1850 Exhibits and sells five paintings at the American Art Union in New York City
1850s Works for Currier & Ives producing paintings of yachts, clippers, and steamships
1886 Wife Ann passes away
1893 Son William passes away
1894 Passes away after contracting pneumonia, buried in North Bergen, New Jersey

III. Collections

The Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York
Atwater Kent Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Cahoon Museum of American Art, Cotuit, Massachusetts
Chicago Historical Society, Illinois
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
India House Club, New York, New York
Jersey City Museum, New Jersey
Maine Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine
Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia
McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Mellon Bank, N.A., Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona, Minnesota
Museum of the City of New York, New York
Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Staten Island Museum, New York
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

IV. Exhibitions

1850–52 American Art Union, New York, New York

V. Notes

1. John Wilmerding, American Marine Painting (New York, New York: Harry M. Abrams Inc., 1968), 150.
2. Wilmerding, 7.
3. Rudolph J. Shaefer, J. E. Buttersworth 19th-Century Marine Painter (Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Seaport, 2009), 11.
4. Peter Hastings Falk, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 1, A–F (Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999), 529.
5. Wilmerding, 147.

VI. Suggested Resources

Brewington, Dorothy E.R. Marine Paintings and Drawings in Mystic Seaport Museum. Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1982.
Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 1, A–F. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
Schaefer, Rudolph J. J. E. Buttersworth 19th-Century Marine Painter. Mystic, Connecticut: Mystic Seaport, 2009.
Smith, Philip Chadwick Foster. More Paintings & Drawings in the Peabody Museum. Salem, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum, 1979.
Wilmerding, John. American Marine Painting. New York, New York: Harry M. Abrams Inc., 1968.

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