Ross Butler of Woodstock, Ont., first came to prominence as a livestock painter in the 1930s when a number of Canadian horse and cattle breed committees hired him to paint their idea of a perfect specimen.
“For several years, he was known as the world’s leading livestock artist, which was a thing,” David Ross, 68, said about his late dad. “It was a genre. He was among the elite livestock painters.”
Before the Second War, Ross painted ideal depictions of 11 different breeds, “standard types” as they were called — four dairy cow breeds, four beef breeds and two draft horse breeds. He continued painting and sculpting animals for many years. The bulk of them remain on display at the family farm gallery, which once doubled as Butler’s studio before he died in 1995 at age 88.
But thanks to waning public interest, David, who lives at the farm and has run the gallery for some 30 years, is making plans to close it down. The art will be sold, bequeathed and donated, he said.
“The collection will be dispersed.”
Early 15 minutes of fame
Ross was born in in Norwich in southwestern Ontario to a farming family. He had two passions: farm life and drawing.
“As a young boy, he was always drawing and doodling,” said David. “But the farm life was always there.”
Ross, who eventually became a Jersey breeder himself, began specializing in drawing and painting farm animals. But his true talent was realized when he began “creating breed standards for domestic livestock in Canada,” said David.
Ross Butler’s works idealize life on the farm and this notion of a quieter and more noble way of life.– Mary Reid, curator, Woodstock Art Gallery
“He worked with different breed committees, such as Holstein Canada or Jersey Canada,” David explained to London Morning‘s Rebecca Zandbergen. “They would develop what was thought to be the ideal specimen of what the cows should look like and he would paint that after it was approved by the committees.
“During the 1930s, that was kind of his 15 minutes of fame,” said David. “It’s a specific genre and fairly niche, and often it’s considered folk art.
“Because of that, he was not well known in the art world, but had a worldwide reputation in the agricultural community.”
For the breed committees, Ross painted an Aberdeen Angus, a Hereford, a Beef Short Horn and a Dual Purpose Short Horn — all beef breeds. He also depicted four dairy breeds: a Holstein, a Jersey, a Guernsey and an Ayrshire, as well as two draft horse breeds: a Percheron and a Clydesdale.
Prints of his paintings travelled around the world, said David.
“Often when cattle was exported to other countries to improve their dairy herds, some of his models or his prints would go along with the cattle.”
Ross also made sculptures of livestock and was the first Canadian artist to sculpt in butter at the Canadian National Exhibition and the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, said David.
Simpler and kinder lifestyle
As people began feeling more isolated in big cities during the Great Depression, agricultural art became more popular, and for good reason, said Woodstock Art Gallery curator and director Mary Reid.
“People turned to more rural and agricultural representation of America as holding up moral and ethical values of society,” said Reid.
Butler’s paintings are a beacon of hope and a reminder of us to not forget or lose sight of what is important in life.– Woodstock Art Gallery curator, Mary Reid
“Ross Butler’s works fit squarely in this genre, idealizing life on the farm, and this notion of a quieter and more noble way of life.”
Reid believes Butler’s work has an even greater significance today.
“It not only speaks to representation of agriculture from 100 years ago, but also what is being lost as the agricultural industry becomes more and more corporatized,” she said.
“Butler’s paintings are a beacon of hope and a reminder of us to not forget or lose sight of what is important in life.”
Hopeful for new home
The Ross Butler gallery shut down during the pandemic, but has since reopened by appointment.
In the next two to three years, the gallery will likely just close, said David.
“We’re hopeful that some of [the collection] will end up in the Woodstock Art Gallery and the Woodstock Museum National Historic Site,” he said.
Collectors have also shown interest in purchasing some pieces, but that’s not his preference, said David.
“I would rather it ended up in public institutions.”