Read ELIZABETH THOMPSON BUTLER. of Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, free online book, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, on ReadCentral.com.

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 great prominence.

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 such.

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 France.

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 her husband.

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 pictures!

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 thousand dollars.

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. Butler’s development.