By Armand Cabrera
Elizabeth Thompson was born in Lausanne Switzerland in 1846. She was the oldest of two daughters of Thomas James Thompson and his second wife Christiana Weller. Her mother was an amateur artist and Elizabeth showed an interest in drawing at the age of five. The family spent their summers in the Italian Riviera and the children were home schooled. After formal studies in England the family returned to Italy where Elizabeth began study with Giuseppe Bellucci in Florence in 1869. By 1870 she was painting religious subjects and portraits of friends. She also sketched in pen and pencil and watercolor. Here sketches were mostly soldiers and men in battle.
In 1874 she submitted the painting Roll Call to the Royal Academy. The painting became a huge success for the young painter with critics and the public alike. Huge crowds gathered to see it and it was so popular the Academy sent it on tour. Multiple people bid to own it and the painting was eventually purchased by Queen Victoria. The Queen allowed engravings to be made of the image and prints were sold to the public.
Almost overnight Elizabeth became a much sought after artist. She continued to paint military subjects to great acclaim. Elizabeth made sure her paintings were as accurate as possible. Because of her fame and success many of the men who had taken place in the battles she depicted would pose for her paintings in their uniforms.
Her career changed the view of women painters and the idea of what military paintings should be about. John Ruskin who had proclaimed he thought no woman was capable of painting to a professional level publically recanted his statement after viewing Elizabeth’s work. Her paintings were not just action scenes of battles but focused on the human elements of suffering and bravery and the individuals taking part in the conflict.
In 1877 Elizabeth married Major William Butler. She had six children. Elizabeth traveled with her husband through Africa, the Middle East and Europe as he carried out his military service. After the Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902) the interest in military painting dwindled and though Elizabeth continued to paint, twentieth century taste turned away from realism to modernism.
Elizabeth Thompson Butler died in 1933 at the age of 87.
A Dictionary of European Genre Painting
Phillip Hook and Mark Poltimore
The Antique Collectors Club 1986
Lady Butler Battle Artist 1846-1933
Paul Usherwood and Jenny Spencer Smith
Sutton publishing LTD 1987
By Elizabeth Butler
Constable & Co. LTD 1922
I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.
~ Lady Elizabeth Butler