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Artist Profile: James Buttersworth

LONDON.- From the 17th to 19th century, the maritime genre in painting reached its peak popularity, with a number of artists from Rembrandt to Hokusai depicting the dangers of the sea and sailing; amongst these artists was James E. Buttersworth.

Buttersworth was born in London, England in 1817, with a future as a maritime artist predestined by his family’s history in this occupation. His father, Thomas Buttersworth, was of particular importance to the genre, drawing upon his experiences as a sailor during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Unlike his son, Thomas did not receive much recognition for his work until after his death.

Having studied under his father, Buttersworth moved across the Atlantic to the United States during his late 20s, settling in New Jersey. The young artist established a studio across-state in Brooklyn, New York, which led to the New York Harbor being used as background for his intricate paintings of various vessels. It was this precision that led to Buttersworth becoming the choice artist for wealthy yacht owners of the mid-to-late 19th century.

As notable and rich patrons commissioned Buttersworth to commemorate their yachting achievements, a distinct difference emerged between the work of the artist and his late father; whilst Thomas recreated troubling scenes of warships struggling at sea and specific historical events (e.g ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’), James captured the high society indulging in their costly hobbies. Nonetheless, some paintings do show influence from his father’s unsettling works, such as ‘Clipper Ship at Cape Horn’.

Besides his importance in art history, Buttersworth played a significant role in yachting history. Six years after moving to America, the painter returned to England for the ‘Race for the Hundred Pound Cup’; throughout the competition, Buttersworth created sketches and paintings of the action, which have been used by maritime historians as a record of events for the historic occasion. Almost 40 years later and a year before his death, Buttersworth again recorded the events of the America’s cup through oil painting, providing evidence for this event also.

Today, Buttersworth remains a popular choice amongst yacht owners, with enthusiasts paying up to $821,000 for one of these highly-detailed and atmospheric paintings. Around 600 of his works survive, with a large collection on display in the Mariners’ Museum, Virginia, United States.

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