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Lives of Girls Who Became Famous Sarah Knowles Bolton

Elizabeth Thompson Butler

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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.

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"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."

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Lives of Girls Who Became Famous
Sarah Knowles Bolton

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