Painter of Portraits

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

Butler’s experience as a portraitist informed his scientific imagery: quick notational skills developed creating portraits enabled him to capture eclipses that were scant minutes in duration. His portraiture further relates to his eclipse paintings in that each is, at heart, about perceiving and then presenting what usually goes unseen, be it the essential character (as opposed to outward appearance) of a sitter or celestial events previously impossible to accurately represent. Hence the artist’s seemingly unrelated pursuits speak to a consistent interest in deploying representation to convey the otherwise unknowable.

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856-1934 Andrew Carnegie L.L.D., Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews, 1901-1907. Courtesy of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum (ACBM 1928/156)


Howard Russell Butler became something of an official portraitist of Andrew Carnegie, painting more than a dozen images of the self-made philanthropist— many of which were donated to hang in Carnegie’s libraries and other institutions of which he was a patron. Butler also painted several posthumous portraits of Carnegie’s mother, as well as a picture of Carnegie’s wife, Louise, and their daughter, Margaret, that hung in a prominent place at their New York mansion (today the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum). –Heather Ewing, executive director, Center for Italian Modern Art; author, Life of a Mansion: The Story of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934 Portrait of Thomas Moran, ca. 1922, Oil on canvas, Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY, gift of Mrs. F. Stanhope Philips Photo: Gary Mamay

Butler’s portrait of Hudson River painter Thomas Moran shows the artist at his easel, working on one of his many paintings of Yellowstone. Both Butler and Moran had homes in East Hampton, a town on the east end of Long Island that had become a beacon for artists because of its unique light and beautiful shoreline views. Moran also had a studio in Santa Barbara, California, an oceanside town that attracted a community of artists. Butler was introduced to Santa Barbara through Moran and lived there from 1921 to 1926. He painted this portrait while living in Santa Barbara.

William Allen Butler Jr., Class of 1876 (1853–1923) (brother of artist) Oil on canvas, Princeton University, gift of the artist (Howard Russell Butler) to the Princeton University Rowing Association, PP197

Howard Russell Butler’s brother, William Allen Butler Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps and became a highly respected lawyer. While students together at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), William and Howard were avid rowers on the canal near the college. Later, both played a critical role in persuading Andrew Carnegie to build a lake and securing the land needed for this enterprise. In his Biographical Notes, Howard recalled, “The difficulty of rowing on the canal and the impossibilities of having any races on it, made us wish that the adjoining marshland could be cleaned and flooded. This was the first idea of Princeton lake, long afterwards realized in Lake Carnegie.” This portrait was a gift by the artist to the Princeton University Rowing Association. William is also known as the “father of rowing at Princeton,” a title given to him because of his efforts on behalf of the rowing program.