Artist Biography

Howard Russell Butler

(1856 - 1934)

Table of Contents

    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

    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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