Howard Russell Butler

Artist Biography

A landscape painter active from the 1880s to the 1920s, Howard Russell Butler was acclaimed during his lifetime for his seascape scenes and depictions of solar eclipses.

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

I. Biography

Howard Russell Butler was born on March 3, 1856, to an affluent family in New York City. Butler attended Princeton University, earning one of the school’s first Bachelor of Science degrees in 1876. Then, following in the footsteps of his father who was an attorney, Butler earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1882. After pursuing electrical patent law for two years, he changed career paths and began focusing on painting.[1]

In 1884, Butler became a student of Frederic Edwin Church in New York City and traveled with his teacher to Mexico. He also joined the Art Students League and studied under James Carroll Beckwith and George de Forest Bush. The following year, Butler sailed to Paris with Church to continue his artistic studies abroad. Butler was particularly interested in the work of Jules Bastien-LePage and John Singer Sargent. He traveled throughout Europe during the two years that he lived in Paris, spending his summers painting at locations including Concarneau, Brittany and St. Ives, Cornwall.[2]

Only a few years after beginning his artistic career, Butler began exhibiting his work in major exhibitions. In 1886, he submitted his paintings for the Paris Salon and two pieces were accepted. Soir d’Octobre, depicting a sunset over meadows near Paris, was featured in the second-highest class of paintings. La Recolte des Varechs, a painting of peasants on a beach and a yellow sunset, received honorable mention.[3] According to Butler’s letters, he was one of just seven Americans to earn the award. In 1887, Butler again had two paintings included in the Paris Salon. Both works portrayed English scenes that he had created the previous summer during his travels.[4] After the 1887 Salon, Butler returned home to New York. He continued to travel and paint, venturing throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

During his lifetime, Butler was well-known for his interest in science as well as art. He studied physics during his time at Princeton and advocated integrating scientific knowledge into the painter’s process throughout his artistic career. He wrote, “The painter is to deal with the facts and the laws of nature and there is no line of investigation which opens the door of the universe and gives an insight into the laws of nature and material things like the study of physics.”[5] Butler developed a particular interest in astronomy and incorporated this pursuit into his artwork. In 1918, he joined the United States Naval Observatory team in Oregon to paint the 1918 solar eclipse, and again portrayed the subsequent eclipses in 1923 and 1925. Butler wrote a book on the science of painting in 1923 called Painter and Space; Or, The Third Dimension in Graphic Art. Butler also held the position of supervisor for astronomy exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, and in 1926, he was named Honorary Fellow of the institution.[6]

While Butler was best known for his landscape and solar eclipse paintings, he also produced occasional portraits and genre scenes. Notably, he executed at least seventeen portraits of his friend Andrew Carnegie.[7]

Butler exhibited his work frequently in the United States from the 1880s into the 1920s, consistently winning awards. He was a founding member of the American Fine Arts Society and became its first president. Additionally, Butler held the position of vice-president of the National Academy of Design. While he spent much of his life in New York City, he lived in California for periods in 1905–7 and 1921–26. He resided in Princeton, New Jersey from 1913–21 and again in 1926, where he remained for the rest of his life.

II. Chronology

1856 Born on March 3 in New York City
1872–76 Studies at Princeton University
1882 Earns law degree from Columbia University
1884 Abandons law career to pursue art; Studies with Frederic Edwin Church in Mexico and New York; Joins Art Students League
1885 Sails to France and studies with Church in Paris; Spends summer painting at artists’ colony in Concarneau, Brittany
1886–87 Spends summers painting in St. Ives, Cornwall
1887–1904 Lives in New York City
1888 Joins Society of American Artists
1889 Elected to Architectural League of New York
1889–1906 Helps found and becomes first president of the American Fine Arts Society
1897 Becomes an Associate of National Academy of Design
1900 Promoted to full membership of National Academy of Design
1905–7 Lives in California
1908–13 Lives in New York City
1913–21 Lives in Princeton, New Jersey
1918 Joins United States Naval Observatory team in Oregon to paint solar eclipse
1921–26 Lives in Pasadena and Santa Barbara, California
1923 Publishes Painter and Space; Or, The Third Dimension in Graphic Art
1923, 1925 Paints solar eclipses
1926 Named Honorary Fellow of the American Museum of Natural History
1926–34 Lives in Princeton
1934 Dies on May 22 in Princeton

III. Collections

American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

IV. Exhibitions

Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
1885–1935 National Academy of Design, New York, New York
1886 Paris Salon, France, honorable mention
1887 Paris Salon, France
1888 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, silver medal
1889 Paris Exposition, France, silver medal
1892, 1894–98, 1909, 1917–18, 1921 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1893 Chicago Exposition, Illinois, silver medal
1895 Atlanta Exposition, Georgia, medal
1900, 1901 Boston Art Club, Massachusetts
1900 Paris Exposition, France, medal
1901 Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, silver medal
1904 St. Louis Exposition, Missouri, bronze medal
1908–23 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, California, silver medal
1916 National Academy of Design, New York, New York, Carnegie Prize

V. Memberships

American Federation of Arts
American Fine Arts Society, founder
Architectural League of New York
Art Students League
Century Association
Lotos Club
National Academy of Design, Academician; vice-president
National Arts Club
National Institute of Arts and Letters
New York Watercolor Club
Society of American Artists

VI. Notes

1. Elisabeth Stevens, “Howard Russell Butler: An American in Paris, 1885–1887,” Archives of American Art Journal 17, no. 4 (1977): 2.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ibid.
5. Howard Russell Butler, Painter and Space; Or, The Third Dimension in Graphic Art (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1923), 147.
6. Stevens, 4.
7. Ibid.

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 1, A–F. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786–1940. 2nd ed. San Francisco, California: Hughes Publishing Company, 1989.
Shirey, David L. “Butler at the Squibb–A Painter of Talent.” New York Times. May 22, 1977.
Stevens, Elisabeth. “Howard Russell Butler: An American in Paris, 1885–1887.” Archives of American Art Journal 17, no. 4 (1977): 2–5.

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