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Ship, Sea And Sky

June 2024
1min read

The Marine Art of James Edward Buttersworth

by Richard B. Grassby, Rizzoli, 128 pages, $35.00 . CODE: RIZ -4

Although he is widely esteemed to be in the first rank of American marine painters, little is known about James E. Buttersworth. He was born in England in 1817, the son and grandson of marine artists; he emigrated to New York around 1847; he died in 1894. No letters or family papers have survived, and the author speculates that he may not have been fully literate (both his stepmother and his wife signed their children’s birth certificates with an X ). Nevertheless, Buttersworth produced an eloquent body of energized, light-filled canvases depicting all manner of ships: naval vessels, packets, brigs, pilot boats, yachts. Fifty-two paintings are reproduced here, all of them in color. Richard Grassby, an art historian who specializes in marine painting, writes with ease and authority about the particular demands of the genre and about the tricky business of earning a living selling art in New York in the mid-nineteenth century.

In Buttersworth’s work the sky is always black with gathering clouds and the sea agitated, but Grassby resists the impulse to find meaning lurking in any of this. As he concludes, the artist was simply supremely skilled at composing ships, sea, and sky and at suggesting the busy human energy driving every maritime endeavor.

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