Born at Kilmurray, Thomastown, co. Kilkenny, Mildred Anne Butler was the youngest daughter of Captain Henry Butler, who was himself an amateur artist and a grandson of the 11th Viscount Mountgarret. Although discriminated against because she was a woman, Butler set out to become an artist. She studied in London, firstly under Paul Naftel, then with William Frank Calderon, who specialised in animal painting. In the summers of 1894 and the following year, she spent time in Newlyn, where she studied under Norman Garstin. She then returned to Kilmurry, where she lived and worked until her death. Butler first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in Piccadilly in 1888, and also showed with the Royal Watercolour Society, the RHA and the Watercolour Society of Ireland. She became a member of the Royal Academy in 1893 and three years later her painting The Morning Bath was exhibited at the Academy, where it was purchased by the Chantry Bequest—their first acquisition of a work by a female artist—who presented it to the Tate. After her death, Butler was virtually forgotten, until 1980, when an exhibition curated by Prof. Anne Crookshank brought her to public notice again; thereafter her work gained enormously in popularity. A touring exhibition of her work was organised by the Crawford Art Gallery in 1987; it travelled to the National Gallery and to the Ulster Museum.
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