Elizabeth Thompson Butler.
While woman has not achieved such brilliant success in art, perhaps,
as in literature, many names stand high on the lists. Early history
has its noted women: Propersia di Rossi, of Bologna, whose romantic
history Mrs. Hemans has immortalized; Elisabetta Sirani, painter,
sculptor, and engraver on copper, herself called a "miracle of art,"
the honored of popes and princes, dying at twenty-six; Marietta
Tintoretta, who was invited to be the artist at the courts of
emperors and kings, dying at thirty, leaving her father inconsolable;
Sophonisba Lomellini, invited by Philip II. of Spain to Madrid, to
paint his portrait, and that of the Queen, concerning whom, though
blind, Vandyck said he had received more instruction from a blind
woman than from all his study of the old masters; and many more.
The first woman artist in England was Susannah Hornebolt, daughter of
the principal painter who immediately preceded Hans Holbein, Gerard
Hornebolt, a native of Ghent. Albrecht Duerer said of her, in 1521:
"She has made a colored drawing of our Saviour, for which I gave her a
florin [forty cents]. It is wonderful that a female should be able
to do such work." Her brother Luke received a larger salary from King
Henry VIII. than he ever gave to Holbein,--$13.87 per month. Susannah
married an English sculptor, named Whorstly, and lived many years in
great honor and esteem with all the court.
Arts flourished under Charles I. To Vandyck and Anne Carlisle he gave
ultra-marine to the value of twenty-five hundred dollars. Artemisia
Gentileschi, from Rome, realized a splendid income from her work;
and, although forty-five years old when she came to England, she was
greatly admired, and history says made many conquests. This may be
possible, as George IV. said a woman never reaches her highest powers
of fascination till she is forty. Guido was her instructor, and one of
her warmest eulogizers. She was an intimate friend of Domenichino and
of Guercino, who gave all his wealth to philanthropies, and when in
England was the warm friend of Vandyck. Some of her works are in the
Pitti Palace, at Florence, and some at Madrid, in Spain.
Of Maria Varelst, the historical painter, the following story is told:
At the theatre she sat next to six German gentlemen of high rank, who
were so impressed with her beauty and manner that they expressed great
admiration for her among each other. The young lady spoke to them in
German, saying that such extravagant praise in the presence of a lady
was no real compliment. One of the party immediately repeated what he
had said in Latin. She replied in the same tongue "that it was unjust
to endeavor to deprive the fair sex of the knowledge of that tongue
which was the vehicle of true learning." The gentlemen begged to call
upon her. Each sat for his portrait, and she was thus brought into
The artist around whose beauty and talent romance adds a special
charm, was Angelica Kauffman, the only child of Joseph Kauffman,
born near Lake Constance, about 1741. At nine years of age she made
wonderful pastel pictures. Removing to Lombardy, it is asserted that
her father dressed her in boy's clothing, and smuggled her into the
academy, that she might be improved in drawing. At eleven she went to
Como, where the charming scenery had a great impression upon the young
girl. No one who wishes to grow in taste and art can afford to live
away from nature's best work. The Bishop of Como became interested
in her, and asked her to paint his portrait. This was well done in
crayon, and soon the wealthy patronized her. Years after, she wrote:
"Como is ever in my thoughts. It was at Como, in my most happy youth,
that I tasted the first real enjoyment of life."
When she went to Milan, to study the great masters, the Duke of Modena
was attracted by her beauty and devotion to her work. He introduced
her to the Duchess of Massa Carrara, whose portrait she painted, as
also that of the Austrian governor, and soon those of many of the
nobility. When all seemed at its brightest, her mother, one of the
best of women, died. Her father, broken-hearted, accepted the offer to
decorate the church of his native town, and Angelica joined him in the
frescoing. After much hard work, they returned to Milan. The constant
work had worn on the delicate girl. She gave herself no time for rest.
When not painting, she was making chalk and crayon drawings, mastering
the harpsichord, or lost in the pages of French, German, or Italian.
For a time she thought of becoming a singer; but finally gave herself
wholly to art. After this she went to Florence, where she worked from
sunrise to sunset, and in the evening at her crayons. In Rome, with
her youth, beauty, fascinating manners, and varied reading, she gained
a wide circle of friends. Her face was a Greek oval, her complexion
fresh and clear, her eyes deep blue, her mouth pretty and always
smiling. She was accused of being a coquette, and quite likely was
For three months she painted in the Royal Gallery at Naples, and then
returned to Rome to study the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo.
From thence she went to Bologna and beautiful Venice. Here she met
Lady Wentworth, who took her to London, where she was introduced at
once to the highest circles. Sir Joshua Reynolds had the greatest
admiration for her, and, indeed, was said to have offered her his hand
and heart. The whole world of art and letters united in her praise.
Often she found laudatory verses pinned on her canvas. The great
people of the land crowded her studio for sittings. She lived in
Golden Square, now a rather dilapidated place back of Regent Street.
She was called the most fascinating woman in England. Sir Joshua
painted her as "Design Listening to Poetry," and she, in turn, painted
him. She was the pet of Buckingham House and Windsor Castle.
In the midst of all this unlimited attention, a man calling himself
the Swedish Count, Frederic de Horn, with fine manners and handsome
person, offered himself to Angelica. He represented that he was
calumniated by his enemies and that the Swedish Government was about
to demand his person. He assured her, if she were his wife, she could
intercede with the Queen and save him. She blindly consented to the
marriage, privately. At last, she confessed it to her father, who took
steps at once to see if the man were true, and found that he was the
vilest impostor. He had a young wife already in Germany, and would
have been condemned to a felon's death if Angelica had been willing.
She said, "He has betrayed me; but God will judge him."
She received several offers of marriage after this, but would accept
no one. Years after, when her father, to whom she was deeply devoted,
was about to die, he prevailed upon her to marry a friend of his,
Antonio Zucchi, thirteen years her senior, with whom she went to Rome,
and there died. He was a man of ability, and perhaps made her life
happy. At her burial, one hundred priests accompanied the coffin,
the pall being held by four young girls, dressed in white, the four
tassels held by four members of the Academy. Two of her pictures were
carried in triumph immediately after her coffin. Then followed a grand
procession of illustrious persons, each bearing a lighted taper.
Goethe was one of her chosen friends. He said of her: "She has a most
remarkable and, for a woman, really an unheard-of talent. No living
painter excels her in dignity, or in the delicate taste with which she
handles the pencil."
Miss Ellen C. Clayton, in her interesting volumes, _English Female
Artists_, says, "No lady artist, from the days of Angelica Kauffman,
ever created such a vivid interest as Elizabeth Thompson Butler. None
had ever stepped into the front rank in so short a time, or had in
England ever attained high celebrity at so early an age."
She was born in the Villa Clermont, Lausanne, Switzerland, a
country beautiful enough to inspire artistic sentiments in all its
inhabitants. Her father, Thomas James Thompson, a man of great culture
and refinement, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, was a warm
friend of Charles Dickens, Lord Lytton, and their literary associates.
Somewhat frail in health, he travelled much of the time, collecting
pictures, of which he was extremely fond, and studying with the eye
of an artist the beauties of each country, whether America, Italy, or
His first wife died early, leaving one son and daughter. The second
wife was an enthusiastic, artistic girl, especially musical, a friend
of Dickens, and every way fitted to be the intelligent companion of
After the birth of Elizabeth, the family resided in various parts of
Southern Europe. Now they lived, says Mrs. Alice Meynell, her only
sister, in the January, 1883, _St. Nicholas_, "within sight of the
snow-capped peaks of the Apennines, in an old palace, the Villa de
Franchi, immediately overlooking the Mediterranean, with olive-clad
hills at the back; on the left, the great promontory of Porto Fino; on
the right, the Bay of Genoa, some twelve miles away, and the long
line of the Apennines sloping down into the sea. The palace garden
descended, terrace by terrace, to the rocks, being, indeed, less a
garden than what is called a _villa_ in the Liguria, and a _podere_
in Tuscany,--a fascinating mixture of vine, olive, maize, flowers,
and corn. A fountain in marble, lined with maiden-hair, played at the
junction of each flight of steps. A great billiard-room on the first
floor, hung with Chinese designs, was Elizabeth Thompson's first
school-room; and there Charles Dickens, upon one of his Italian
visits, burst in upon a lesson in multiplication.
"The two children never went to school, and had no other teacher than
their father,--except their mother for music, and the usual professors
for 'accomplishments' in later years. And whether living happily in
their beautiful Genoese home, or farther north among the picturesque
Italian lakes, or in Switzerland, or among the Kentish hop-gardens and
the parks of Surrey, Elizabeth's one central occupation of drawing was
never abandoned,--literally not for a day."
She was a close observer of nature, and especially fond of animals.
When not out of doors sketching landscapes, she would sit in the house
and draw, while her father read to her, as he believed the two things
could be carried on beneficially.
She loved to draw horses running, soldiers, and everything which
showed animation and energy. Her educated parents had the good sense
not to curb her in these perhaps unusual tastes for a girl. They saw
the sure hand and broad thought of their child, and, no doubt, had
expectations of her future fame.
At fifteen, as the family had removed to England, Elizabeth joined
the South Kensington School of Design, and, later, took lessons in oil
painting, for a year, of Mr. Standish. Thus from the years of five to
sixteen she had studied drawing carefully, so that now she was ready
to touch oil-painting for the first time. How few young ladies would
have been willing to study drawing for eleven years, before trying to
paint in oil!
The Thompson family now moved to Ventnor, in the Isle of Wight,
staying for three years at Bonchurch, one of the loveliest places in
the world. Ivy grows over walls and houses, roses and clematis bloom
luxuriantly, and the balmy air and beautiful sea make the place
as restful as it is beautiful. Here Elizabeth received lessons in
water-color and landscape from Mr. Gray.
After another visit abroad the family returned to London, and the
artist daughter attended the National Art School at South Kensington,
studying in the life-class. The head master, Mr. Richard Burchett, saw
her talent, and helped her in all ways possible.
Naturally anxious to test the world's opinion of her work, she sent
some water-colors to the Society of British Artists for exhibition,
and they were rejected. There is very little encouragement for
beginners in any profession. However, "Bavarian Artillery going into
Action" was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, and received favorable
notice from Mr. Tom Taylor, art critic of the _Times_.
Between two long courses at South Kensington Elizabeth spent a summer
in Florence and a winter at Rome, studying in both places. At Florence
she entered the studio of Signor Guiseppe Bellucci, an eminent
historical painter and consummate draughtsman, a fellow-student of Sir
Frederick Leighton at the Academy.
Here the girlish student was intensely interested in her work.
She rose early, before the other members of the family, taking her
breakfast alone, that she might hasten to her beloved labor. "On the
day when she did not work with him," says Mrs. Meynell, "she copied
passages from the frescoes in the cloisters of the Annunziata,
masterpieces of Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio, making a special
study of the drapery of the last-named painter. The sacristans of the
old church--the most popular church in Florence--knew and welcomed the
young English girl, who sat for hours so intently at her work in the
cloister, unheeding the coming and going of the long procession of
congregations passing through the gates.
"Her studies in the galleries were also full of delight and profit,
though she made no other copies, and she was wont to say that of all
the influences of the Florentine school which stood her in good stead
in her after-work, that of Andrea del Sarto was the most valuable and
the most important. The intense heat of a midsummer, which, day after
day, showed a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, could not make
her relax work, and her master, Florentine as he was, was obliged
to beg her to spare him, at least for a week, if she would not spare
herself. It was toward the end of October that artist and pupil
parted, his confidence in her future being as unbounded as her
gratitude for his admirable skill and minute carefulness."
During her seven months in Rome she painted, in 1870, for an
ecclesiastical art exhibition, opened by Pope Pius IX., in the
cloisters of the Carthusian Monastery, the "Visitation of the Blessed
Virgin to St. Elizabeth," and the picture gained honorable mention.
On her return to England the painting was offered to the Royal Academy
and rejected. And what was worse still, a large hole had been torn
in the canvas, in the sky of the picture. Had she not been very
persevering, and believed in her heart that she had talent, perhaps
she would not have dared to try again, but she had worked steadily
for too many years to fail now. Those only win who can bear refusal a
thousand times if need be.
The next year, being at the Isle of Wight, she sent another picture to
the Academy, and it was rejected. Merit does not always win the
first, nor the second, nor the third time. It must have been a little
consolation to Elizabeth Thompson, to know that each year the judges
were reminded that a person by that name lived, and was painting
The next year a subject from the Franco-Prussian War was taken, as
that was fresh in the minds of the people. The title was "Missing."
"Two French officers, old and young, both wounded, and with one
wounded horse between them, have lost their way after a disastrous
defeat; their names will appear in the sad roll as missing, and the
manner of their death will never be known."
The picture was received, but was "skyed," that is, placed so high
that nobody could well see it. During this year she received a
commission from a wealthy art patron to paint a picture. What should
it be? A battle scene, because into that she could put her heart.
A studio was taken in London, and the "Roll-Call" (calling the roll
after an engagement,--Crimea) was begun. She put life into the faces
and the attitudes of the men, as she worked with eager heart and
careful labor. In the spring of 1874 it was sent to the Royal Academy,
with, we may suppose, not very enthusiastic hopes.
The stirring battle piece pleased the committee, and they cheered when
it was received. Then it began to be talked at the clubs that a woman
had painted a battle scene! Some had even heard that it was a great
picture. When the Academy banquet was held, prior to the opening, the
speeches of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, both gave
high praise to the "Roll-Call."
Such an honor was unusual. Everybody was eager to see the painting. It
was the talk at the clubs, on the railway trains, and on the crowded
thoroughfares. All day long crowds gathered before it, a policeman
keeping guard over the painting, that it be not injured by its eager
admirers. The Queen sent for it, and it was carried, for a few hours,
to Buckingham Palace, for her to gaze upon. So much was she pleased
that she desired to purchase it, and the person who had ordered it
gave way to Her Majesty. The copyright was bought for fifteen times
the original sum agreed upon as its value, and a steel-plate
engraving made from it at a cost of nearly ten thousand dollars. After
thirty-five hundred impressions, the plate was destroyed, that there
might be no inferior engravings of the picture. The "Roll-Call" was
for some time retained by the Fine Art Society, where it was seen by
a quarter of a million persons. Besides this, it was shown in all the
large towns of England. It is now at Windsor Castle.
Elizabeth Thompson had become famous in a day, but she was not elated
over it; for, young as she was, she did not forget that she had
been working diligently for twenty years. The newspapers teemed with
descriptions of her, and incidents of her life, many of which were, of
course, purely imaginative. Whenever she appeared in society, people
crowded to look at her.
Many a head would have been turned by all this praise; not so the
well-bred student. She at once set to work on a more difficult
subject, "The Twenty-eighth Regiment at Quatre Bras." When this
appeared, in 1875, it drew an enormous crowd. The true critics praised
heartily, but there were some persons who thought a woman could not
possibly know about the smoke of a battle, or how men would act under
fire. That she studied every detail of her work is shown by Mr. W.
H. Davenport Adams, in his _Woman's Work and Worth._ "The choice of
subject," he says, "though some people called it a 'very shocking one
for a young lady,' engaged the sympathy of military men, and she was
generously aided in obtaining material and all kinds of data for the
work. Infantry officers sent her photographs of 'squares.' But these
would not do, the men were not in earnest; they would kneel in such
positions as they found easiest for themselves; indeed, but for the
help of a worthy sergeant-major, who saw that each individual assumed
and maintained the attitude proper for the situation at whatever
inconvenience, the artist could not possibly have impressed upon her
picture that verisimilitude which it now presents.
"Through the kindness of the authorities, an amount of gunpowder was
expended at Chatham, to make her see, as she said, how 'the men's
faces looked through the smoke,' that would have justified the
criticisms of a rigid parliamentary economist. Not satisfied with
seeing how men _looked_ in square, she desired to secure some faint
idea of how they _felt_ in square while 'receiving cavalry.' And
accordingly she repaired frequently to the Knightsbridge Barracks,
where she would kneel to 'receive' the riding-master and a mounted
sergeant of the Blues, while they thundered down upon her the full
length of the riding-school, deftly pulling up, of course, to avoid
accident. The fallen horse presented with such truth and vigor in
'Quatre Bras' was drawn from a Russian horse belonging to Hengler's
Circus, the only one in England that could be trusted to remain for a
sufficient time in the required position. A sore trial of patience was
this to artist, to model, to Mr. Hengler, who held him down, and
to the artist's father, who was present as spectator. Finally the
rye,--the 'particularly tall rye' in which, as Colonel Siborne says,
the action was fought,--was conscientiously sought for, and found,
after much trouble, at Henly-on-Thames."
I saw this beautiful and stirring picture, as well as several others
of Mrs. Butler's, while in England. Mr. Ruskin says of "Quatre Bras":
"I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against
it than I did Miss Thompson's; partly because I have always said that
no woman could paint, and secondly, because I thought what the public
made such a fuss about _must_ be good for nothing. But it is Amazon's
work, this, no doubt of it, and the first fine pre-raphaelite picture
of battle we have had, profoundly interesting, and showing all manner
of illustrative and realistic faculty. The sky is most tenderly
painted, and with the truest outline of cloud of all in the
exhibition; and the terrific piece of gallant wrath and ruin on the
extreme left, where the cuirassier is catching round the neck of his
horse as he falls, and the convulsed fallen horse, seen through the
smoke below, is wrought through all the truth of its frantic passions
with gradations of color and shade which I have not seen the like of
since Turner's death."
This year, 1875, a figure from the picture, the "Tenth Bengal Lancers
at Tent-pegging," was published as a supplement to the Christmas
number of _London Graphic_, with the title "Missed." In 1876, "The
Return from Balaklava" was painted, and in 1877, "The Return from
Inkerman," for which latter work the Fine Art Society paid her fifteen
This year, 1877, on June 11, Miss Thompson was married to Major, now
Colonel, William Francis Butler, K.C.B. He was then thirty-nine years
of age, born in Ireland, educated in Dublin, and had received many
honors. He served on the Red River expedition, was sent on a special
mission to the Saskatchewan territories in 1870-71, and served on the
Ashantee expedition in 1873. He has been honorably mentioned several
times in the House of Lords by the Field-Marshal-Commanding-in-Chief.
He wrote _The Great Lone Land_ in 1872, _The Wild North Land_ in 1873,
and _A Kimfoo_ in 1875.
After the marriage they spent much time in Ireland, where Mrs. Butler
painted "Listed for the Connaught Rangers" in 1879. Her later works
are "The Remnant of an Army," showing the arrival at Jellalabad, in
1842, of Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the sixteen thousand men
under General Elphinstone, in the unfortunate Afghan campaign; the
"Scots Greys Advancing," "The Defence of Rorke's Drift," an incident
of the Zulu War, painted at the desire of the Queen and some others.
Still a young and very attractive woman, she has before her a bright
future. She will have exceptional opportunities for battle studies in
her husband's army life. She will probably spend much time in Africa,
India, and other places where the English army will be stationed. Her
husband now holds a prominent position in Africa.
In her studio, says her sister, "the walls are hung with old
uniforms--the tall shako, the little coatee, and the stiff
stock--which the visitor's imagination may stuff out with the form of
the British soldier as he fought in the days of Waterloo. These are
objects of use, not ornament; so are the relics from the fields of
France in 1871, and the assegais and spears and little sharp wooden
maces from Zululand."
Mrs. Butler has perseverance, faithfulness in her work, and courage.
She has won remarkable fame, but has proved herself deserving by her
constant labor, and attention to details. Mrs. Butler's mother has
also exhibited some fine paintings. The artist herself has illustrated
a volume of poems, the work of her sister, Mrs. Meynell. A cultivated
and artistic family have, of course, been an invaluable aid in Mrs.