Woman in Art/Chapter 12 - Wikisource, the free online library

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By Permission of Messrs. S. Hildesheimer and Co., Ltd., London and Manchester, owners of the copyright and publishers of the large plate.

By Lady Butler
From the picture belonging to the Corporation of Leeds


Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler).

Two women of the nineteenth century reached the high-water mark of art production that, in drawing and technique, spirit and action, surpassed any previous art expression in the line of their chosen subjects. The genii attending their birth seem to have implanted in the heart of each a distinct love for the animal creation, and given an invisible pencil into the hand of each.

We have seen that one of these gifted souls was given to France; twenty-two years later the other was given to England. Both had talents for subjects far beyond the sphere or ability of woman at that time; so said the world of men.

When an emergency or opportunity arises, we are not a little surprised that the right person, fully equipped, is found to fill the position, to do the work, to meet the emergency. Why should we be surprised? Such do not drop to earth full-statured in an hour. Efficient men and women are ever growing, working, delving, studying along the lines of their ability and devotion for twenty, forty, or even fifty years, and when the world has need of them, they are ready. Only years of toil, of mind, body, and spirit, result in preparedness, achievement and success; and then called by the world, they step from drill room, studio, shop, laboratory, or study into the appointed position on the stage of life's drama. The world experiences the thrill of a discoverer, while those on the fringe of the home environment hug themselves and voice a long-delayed prophecy—"We always knew that they'd be great."

The woman who added fame to the art of England was born Elizabeth Thompson, in speaking of whom one is strongly reminded that artists are born—then developed.

An artist born to the comforts of life so that the bread and butter question need not be reckoned with is fortunate indeed. Gifted with art instinct, plus will power and a capacity for work, what more could the Creater grant to a human being?

Elizabeth (Lady Butler), talented child, cultured woman, idolized wife, happy mother, indefatigable and successful painter—all this and more has made her one of the most favored of women and artists.

Her father, a gentleman of wealth and leisure, her mother, also a lover of art and nature, known as a superior amateur in drawing and water-color painting—in the maturity of their powers and judgment they married and together went to enjoy the beauties of nature and art on the Continent.

During their prolonged tour of two years, the first of their two daughters, Elizabeth, was born at Lausanne, the charming heart of Switzerland. Her childhood was spent in the beautiful midlands of England, with frequent journeys to the hills and lakes of other lands. On those trips the child was aroused to the unusual people, costumes, and animals, and a pencil became her constant companion at three and four years of age.

With her as with Rosa Bonheur there came a timely correction in drawing from her parents, thus keeping the child from fundamental errors. "Animals were of prime interest to her, but not asleep or standing, they must be in action to suit the little maid. If a horse were still, he must have just stopped, with that alertness and tension of muscle that means the next step; that subtle poise of action in instant rest, to be followed by instant action." This has always been her strongest characteristic, in all brush and pencil productions; truthfulness to nature was the natural sequence. Study from the moving model was a necessity, to her a charm. Love was in her work. She thrilled with the life she loved to depict. She kept at work continually, sending canvas after canvas to the Academy, seemingly not discouraged because at the first they were not accepted. As a child she wanted to study from the life, for which she went to South Kensington School; but she was put in an elementary class with children of her age, because of which she left and took oil painting of a private teacher, and also sketched at home till, armed with work in oil painting and life drawings, she went back. The head teacher looked at her work and admitted her to the advanced life class.

Elizabeth Thompson was in her early teens when her first picture was accepted. It was a water-color, "Bavarian Artillery Going Into Action." The British Gallery rejected it, but it was accepted by the Dudley Gallery. Her love for animals was leading her on to such military situations on canvas as had never before or since been produced in England, if there had been on the Continent.

France her her "Hall of Battles" at Versailles, vistas of canvas that fairly reek with blood and carnage. Yet, France has had many battle painters through her history, but not one was a woman.

Elizabeth Thompson traversed the battlefields of Europe and of history, painting to the life dramatic incident and action, free from all precedent and conventionality, putting freshness and truth in their places; painting with knowledge gathered from camp and maneuvers and from some actual encounters, plus that innate vision that enabled her to resurrect the soldiers of the Crimea, of the Congo, of Waterloo, and fight those bloody battles again on canvas, serving their purpose to art, to England, and the world, "Lest we forget."

In Italy, as a young girl, she painted with one Bellucci, an excellent draughtsman. She worked incessantly; even when the heat drove the master the country, the pupil remained in Florence and in the coolness of the church Santissima Annunziata she copied frescoes of Andrea del Sarto. So great was her enthusiasm that she arose at dawn and breakfasted alone, that she might have all the time possible for work.

Finishing her student work, she returned to England and opened a studio of her own, sending to the Academy "The Visitation." It came back to her with a hole in the canvas. For three consecutive years her work was rejected, but she kept on painting.

About that time an incident of the Franco-Prussian War absorbed her mind and brush, resulting in the painting called "Missing." Nothing daunted, she sent that also to the Academy. It was accepted, but hung "up and out of sight."

Just then a manufacturer from the north gave her an order for a picture of the Crimea for an hundred pounds ($599). For this she painted a subject long in her mind, "The Roll Call," after an engagement in the Crimea. The poor fellows who were left are massed together in battered and bandaged condition to answer to their names. Sadness and woe are depicted in their faces as the missing were called, who never again would answer, "Here."

The artist's father built a rough studio on the Isle of Wight, where she made studies for that subject; then she took a studio in South Kensington and painted the picture that made her great. Sending in the picture for the annual exhibition, she returned to her home on the Isle of Wight.

Here is a quotation from the letter she received from the Chairman of the Hanging Committee:

"I may tell you with what pleasure I greeted the picture when it came before me for judgment. I was so struck with the excellence of the work that I proposed to take off our hats and give it and you—though personally unknown to me—a round of huzzas, which was done. I shall do all I can to have it well hung on our walls."

Edward VII, at that time Prince of Wales, predicted a great future for the artist. The Duke of Cambridge, then Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, said: "It is astonishing to me how any young lady should have been able to grasp the specialty of soldiers under the circumstances delineated in that picture, and I was struck by the military character which pervades the grouping and the expression of the faces."

Had the Duke or the English public known of the child-environment of this unusually strong artist, they would have understood this evolution of genius that resulted in that astonishing masterpiece,—astonishing because of the maturity of thought, introspection, and sympathy in one so young, as grasped in her "Roll Call."

A writer who has given at length an account of the earlier years of Elizabeth Thompson's career has, perhaps unwittingly, accented the responsibility and influence of parents concerning interest in developing children. Be that as it may, not only a hint but a reminder may be timely just here, for this is an age and a generation of parents who do not seem to sense their privilege, any more than their responsibility, in bringing up their own children in such home influence and personal helpfulness as would tend to broaden and enrich our literature and art, our reverence for religion and respect for law.

Elizabeth Thompson's success with the "Roll Call" was followed by "Gallop," "Halt," "Charge," "Quatre Bras," and "Scott's Grays." From the very titles one almost views a panorama of the scene, for every word, like every stroke of her brush, means Action. "Dawn at Waterloo" and "Roll Call" express the pathetic, heart-breaking phase of warfare and art. One other canvas must be included with the two, "Listed For the Connaught Rangers."

Years ago, the writer was privileged to view a number of those paintings on exhibition in London. A powerful glass was so placed that the figures were greatly enlarged; focused at the moment on the central group of the 'Roll Call" the effect was startling. Real suffering lined those faces, details of bandage, blood, and exhaustion made the heart throb, the reality of which must have gripped the heart of Florence Nightingale at sight of the carnage and death in the bloody wars of the Crimea.

Referring to that beloved human Nightingale, do we realize that she too was an artist? She practiced the fine art of the Good Samaritan; the soul-developed art of helpfulness and sympathy. Her masterpiece—the Hospital at Scutari—was inspired by a divine love for those who suffered. In this connection another quotation seems apropos. It refers again to the "Roll Call."

"The mere fact that the painter was not a man, but that her subject was the soldier, touched the popular heart, so unexpected in the English art was the association of the soldier and the woman.

"When the exhibition closed, the picture of the year made another little visit—a very touching one. Miss Florence Nightingale, confined to her room by chronic suffering, wrote to the artist to ask that the representation of her dear old friends, the soldiers of the Crimea, might be taken to her bedside; and so it was.

"Moreover, separate from the soldier interest (which was very deep in the English heart at that time), or that of the association of the soldier and the woman, was the interest that was strictly feminine. In the triumph of one woman, the generous one dared to see a new opening for all women in the world of art."

The "Roll Call" and "Rork's Drift" were purchased by Queen Victoria, one for Windsor Castle, the other for her favorite home at Osborne.

Lady Butler's husband, an Army officer in active service at the time the artist was doing some of her strongest work, gave her unusual opportunity for studying her chosen subject in any and all phases.

"The next year's success from the brush of Lady Butler (1875) was "Quatre Bras," and the public was as enthusiastic as it had been over the "Roll Call!" Newspapers, critics, nobility were sweeping in their approval and admiration; but one man whom all England listened for was silent. Here again a quotation:

"Mr. Ruskin had not written for fifteen years till that year, which produced his 'Notes on the Royal Academy.' Frank as ever, he confessed: '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." Then he adds in generous amends: "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 .... I had not in the least expected the quality of refinement, for the cleverest women always show their weakness in endeavors to be dashing. But actually, here, what I suppose few people would think of looking at—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 right, where the cuirassier is catching round the neck of his horse as he falls, and the convulsed fallen horse just seen through the smoke below is wrought through all the truth of its frantic passion, and with gradations of color and shade of which I have not seen the like since the death of Turner."

In this excerpt the great English critic bows to a Woman Artist! The first in England.

The reader may not have visited Ireland, may not have sailed around the west and northwest coast of that little world within itself, may not have had a near or distant view of its bleak and barren hills, green and gray in sunlight, or of its sharp peaks pricking cloud curtains, wind-whipped from off the surging sea; may not have seen the rudely piled walls, thatched with clods of turf that look like—what they are—tiny abodes for many folk, pushed up from beneath, kept green by perpetual mists and rain. Such is the environment Lady Butler produced on canvas against which the group of men tell the pathetic story of the beginning of war. The picture shows the rain has cleared the air, but the puddles in the road still reflect in patches the figures of the moving men, officers who are "Recruiting for the Connaught Rangers," and the two men conscripted for war service.

The artist spent some weeks among the hills and huts of these home-loving people, making studies from life. Can one say the scene is too realistic? Why should it not be so? She was not painting a flight of imagination but a chapter of history; a condition of human life, of ethics, of sociology, of hungers and duties of mind and soul. All this and more have been studied and painted with remarkable fidelity by a woman with insight and human sympathy.

The officer in charge is in regimentals, erect, apparently looking straight ahead, but the side glance of his eye is on the recruit on his right, his hands in trouser pockets, a nonchalant upward tilt of his head, while a stub of a pipe lends companionship as he steps into a new and compulsory chapter of his life.

They are mounting the hill road. The scattered huts of the hamlet are seen in the valley behind them. The other recruit looks over his shoulder, it may be his last glance at the cot in the valley he loves amid the hills of Kerry. It is the preface of war, yet full of a tenderness and beauty, a blending of the spirit of nature and the spirit of man. Both are subject to storm and disaster, both subject to the influence of strength, truth, beauty. Nature is active under the influence of power: man, because of the spirit relationship, is more active and elevated under influence of the same Power.

Poverty of the land, poverty of intellectual food, are potent factors in the willingness of the young men to leave their native glen; they show the struggle within as they face the struggle without.

"Scotland Forever!" is perhaps the most dramatic of Lady Butler's canvases, although "Halt," and "Gallop," are close seconds. A young pupil was painting tea roses under an experienced teacher long ago, when a little yellow butterfly sailed into the open window, scented the roses, hovered over them a moment, then was away. It gave the girl an idea. She painted in the butterfly poised an instant over the deeper yellow flowers as if to alight, but the teacher's voice startled her: "O, but you must not paint a bird or butterfly in motion; they must be at rest, not in the act of flying."

Yet here we have a woman painting horses and men rushing furiously into battle; clouds of dust and smoke to right and left of them. Their nostrils snorting vapor as they strain neck and shoulders in eagerness and excitement for the fray. One almost hears ensign and banner snapple in the wind, like staccato notes amid the war cries of men, and snortings of the champers of the bit.

We have said that all subjects of Lady Butler's brush are characterized by action, which is true if the spark of life remains; but if dead—they are dead indeed! On the canvas representing "Halt!" a horse has dropped dead from exhaustion. You know he is dead. No compulsion can bring any response of life from outstretched legs or neck. He has breathed his last. "After the Battle" a horse and rider lie at the entrance of the bridge. They will be borne away, but never move of their own volition.

Another characteristic of Lady Butler's painting is her preservation or delineation of values. Her color strong, clear, harmonious, retains its proper value with added distance and atmosphere as the eye travels from rank to rank, or as smoke and dust of charge and battle serve as a screen for a staged drama. Her foreground is strengthened by knowledge and use of values.

The most exceptional work during her residence in Alexandria is "The Camel Corps," for which she made numerous studies on desert sands. Her own descriptions of camel-riding and camel ethics is amusing and vivid. One is an artist indeed who can formulate an interesting, and I may say a graceful, picture of camels in haste, with their long swinging strides across the yellow African sands. She painted them sixteen or twenty abreast, in tawny brown and a yellowish white. Their long legs have even a longer reach, and their soft-cushioned hoofs seem to spurn the hot sand, tossing it behind them in clouds as the picturesque, red-fezzed black drivers lash the semi-unruly creatures into some semblance of order. Amid the clouds of dust one sees a distant scarlet flag waving its Turkish star and crescent. An African picture to be remembered.

Lady Butler's successes have kept pace with the years. She has sketched and painted wherever duty called her military husband. From Scotland to the African Cape; domiciled at Plymouth, where three of her six children were born, and where "Scotland Forever!" was painted; or at Dover, where her studio was in the constable's tower of the old Castle; at Rome, Alexandria, or a thousand miles up the Nile in a dahabiyeh, or at Aldershot, her brain and hands were busy with art, yet her diary was not neglected, and from its records and those of her sketch books she has compiled delightful volumes which, according to her pen, are dedicated to her children. In the summer of 1913 and the following winter, at Glencar, Lady Butler painted "Dawn at Waterloo," and her own description of the beginnings of that painting, in far-away Ireland, an hundred years after the battle, is extremely interesting. Her treatment of the subject makes it a picture of almost heart-breaking pathos. She had been on the field of that decisive battle years before, with her parents, and knew the lay of the land where those war-worn soldiers bivouacked all the night. At the first sound of the reveille the very earth seems to come slowly to life, as the weary men stir with a seeming sense of not knowing where they are. Two men on dappled grays dominate the center of the picture as they did the whole army at dawn of that fateful day. The cavalry horses at the left seem more alert at the bugle-horn than the weary soldiers who cover the ground away to the distant hills. In the foreground a soldier risen to a sitting position reaches toward the heart of his comrade who will never again rise to an earthly bugle-call. An officer faces the dawn, his attitude an unspoken question—"How many of us will see another dawn?"

Every inch of the eight-foot canvas speaks of Life, Death, War, Tragedy, Pathos, Suffering, and over all bends the tender sky, that the garish light of coming day waken not rudely those who may never see another dawn.

Since the death of her husband, Sir William Butler, in 1910, Lady Butler has spent much time in her beloved home at Glencar; and there as elsewhere her brush has been busy recording scenes and incidents of the late war in which three of her sons served. This from her diary: "First my soldier son went off, and then Benedictine donned the khaki as chaplain of the forces. He went, one may say, from the cloister to the cannon. I had to pass the ordeal which became the lot of so many mothers of sons throughout the Empire."

As time goes on Lady Butler's record and sketches of the World War will become of historic value.

If art has a national value, surely the art of Elizabeth Thompson-Butler, which has depicted the great military achievements of the British Army, through the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries, has entitled the artist to full and honorable membership in the Royal Academy of England.