Painter of Landscapes and Seascapes

Butler began his professional career as an artist in 1884, when he traveled to Mexico to study with the renowned American landscape painter Frederic Church (1826–1900). Church’s landscapes had signaled a new approach to the genre, one that embraced science through the precise recording of the natural world. Butler’s paintings of astronomical phenomena echoed Church’s skills as a scientific reporter, but his landscapes and seascapes owed a greater debt to the naturalism of the plein-air artists whose work he encountered and admired during his three years living in Europe (1885–88).

Among Butler’s favorite subjects was the sea, and to be nearer to it he built a studio among the dunes in East Hampton, New York (1893–1916) and, later, one on the rocky shoreline of Baldhead Cliff, Maine (1916–34). Butler’s dramatic seascapes and coastal views drew inspiration from the paintings of Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910) and J. M. W. Turner (British, 1775–1851), artists who vividly captured the realities of the sea through a mastery of color, light, and pictorial invention.

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856-1934, Les ramassurs de varech (The Seaweed Gatherers), 1886, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Howard Russell Butler, Jr. 1978.65.1

A year after arriving in Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi, Butler joined an artist’s colony in Concarneau, on the Brittany coast. Les remasseurs de varech was painted after he returned to Paris, from sketches he made during his coastal stay. The painting depicts the everyday lives of peasants gathering seaweed on the beach and reflects the influence of French Naturalism in both its subject and its plein-air approach.

Butler submitted this painting to the Paris Salon of 1886 and won an honorable mention. In 1888 the painting received the Temple Silver Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934 English Coast (also known as “Gone” on Saint Ive’s), National Arts Club

In 1886, Butler stayed for several months in Saint Ive’s, Cornwell, where he rented a studio on the top of floor of a fishing loft. While in Saint Ive’s, Butler made many plein-air sketches of the shoreline, which he later translated into larger oils, such as English Coast. Using loose brushstrokes, Butler captured the transient phenomena of nature in the billowy clouds and the crystal seawater, which he rendered in shimmering translucent colors.

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856-1934 Long Island Coast (#20), pastel on gray paper board, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Howard Russell Butler, Jr. 1978.65.5

In 1893, Butler and his wife, Virginia Hays (the daughter of William Jacob Hays, a respected naturalist and painter of animals), bought a small summer cottage in East Hampton, New York, a town on the east end of Long Island that had become a summer destination for Hudson River School painters and American Impressionists. From his summer outpost, Butler found inspiration in the landscapes and seascapes of Long Island. The artist’s pastel and oil sketches, with their lose brush strokes and vibrant colors, often show more vitality than his finished paintings.

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856-1934, Long Island Landscape © Smithsonian Institution

Long Island Landscape was installed in the dining room in in the Carnegie mansion (now the Cooper Hewitt Museum), where it remains on view today

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856─1934 The Approaching Cloudburst, ca. 1905, oil on board, exhibited at the Albright-Knox Gallery in 1908

Butler spent a significant amount of time on the West Coast and in the American Southwest. These regions captured his imagination after his father gifted him a train ticket to California following his graduation from Princeton in 1877. Butler lived in California from 1905 to 1907 and again from 1921 to 1926, in Pasadena and Santa Barbara.

In The Approaching Cloudburst, Butler captured in loose brush work a dramatic storm forming in the rugged mountain ranges of southern California. This may have been a study for the larger painting The Approaching Cloudburst, Southern California, that was included in an exhibition of Butler’s paintings at the Albright Gallery, Buffalo, New York. 

The pastel sketches from Butler’s western travels during 1921-1923 from the Tucson Museum of Art reveal his continuing fascination with transient effects. Like postcards, they capture the snapshots of the sights that inspired Butler. In particular, the motifs of clouds, sunsets and rises, and the sea are emphasized. His palette is warm and the splashes of vivid color coupled with the lightness of the pastels suggest the transience of these natural moments. While the sketches show how Butler committed to recording the sights around him in a naturalistic and realistic manner, the brevity of the beauty of each scene also suggests a romantic respect for the sublimity of nature.

These sketches show how Butler closely observed and captured the changing effects of light during the progression of the day:

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934<br/> <em>Santa Barbara, California</em>, 1921–1923<br/>pastel on paper<br/>Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art, gift Howard Russell Butler Jr.<br/>1976.124 Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934, <em>Santa Barbara, California</em>, 1921–1923, pastel on paper, Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art, gift Howard Russell Butler Jr., 1976.125 Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856–1934, <em>Santa Barbara, California</em>, 1921–1923, pastel on paper, Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art, gift Howard Russell Butler Jr., 1976.126

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856-1934, Late Afternoon in Zion Canyon, 1926, oil on canvas
, Zion Museum Collection, ZION 14581

In 1926, Butler was commissioned by the Union Pacific Railroad to create a series of paintings of the spectacular natural scenery in the area of south Utah now known as Zion National Park. Butler completed seven paintings that were used by Union Pacific in a traveling exhibition that promoted tourism in the region. The paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Museum of Science in Buffalo.

To learn more about the Zion Commission:

Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856─1934, Clearing after September Gale—Maine Coast, ca. 1924, Smithsonian American Art Museum, bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design, 1944.11.1

In 1915, after visiting Maine several times as early as 1904, Butler purchased a summer studio at Baldhead Cliff. New England’s rocky coast and tumultuous ocean first captivated the young Butler when he listened to the escapades of his grandfather, Charles Henry Marshall, a Nantucket-born sea captain (and later ship line owner) who towered prominently in Butler’s early memories as being “the romantic member of my family.”

From his Maine studio, Butler captured not only the sea and its coastline but also the astronomical phenomena of the Northern Lights (in 1919).


Howard Russell Butler, American, 1856─1934, Moonlight on Calm Sea, 1915–30, oil on canvas, Princeton University Art Museum, Gift of Howard Russell Butler Jr., Class of 1920, y1974-81

Butler’s atmospheric use of light and color in his marine nocturne, Moonlight on Calm Sea, shows the influence of British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). Of Turner, Butler wrote, “I did not then realize what an influence he was to have over me. Year by year I’ve come to realize that he was the great pioneer of impressionism, the great analyser of color and light.”

JMW Turner, English, 1775-1851  Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, Exhibited 1842  Oil on canvas Tate, Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 Photo  © Tate, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)