Life and Legacy

Howard Russell Butler  American, 1856–1934  Howard Russell Butler, Class of 1876 (1856–1934) (self-portrait)  Oil on canvas  74.6 x 62 cm  Princeton University  PP359Butler’s celestial imagery operated at the intersection of art and science, but it was as an artist that he fundamentally identified, despite receiving a degree in science from Princeton University in 1876. Within a decade of his graduation, Butler had decided to pursue an earlier interest in art, perhaps inspired to seek connections between the two realms by his uncle, the painter William Stanley Haseltine, whose meticulous renderings of geological phenomena underscored his belief that “every artist is also a scientist.” Butler gravitated in his own art toward portraiture, marine, and celestial paintings—disparate genres nonetheless cohered by their shared investment in fixing static images of changing subject matter, whether restless sitters, shifting seas, or transient astronomical effects.

Among his accomplishments, Butler founded the American Fine Arts Society (now home to the Arts Students League of New York), was president of Carnegie Hall for nine years, and served as the architectural advisor for Andrew Carnegie’s New York mansion (now home to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). He persuaded Carnegie to fund the creation of Carnegie Lake at Princeton University and supervised the lake’s construction. The Astronomy Hall for the American Museum of Natural History, which he designed, was never built, but a number of paintings intended for that space are now in Princeton’s campus collections.

Karl Kusserow, John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Princeton University Art Museum