New England Colleges in Paint and Print: Celebrating the Works of Esteria Butler
By Catherine Cyr, ’22
Tucked away in a storage box at the Winterthur Museum lies a lithograph depicting a picturesque view of one of New England’s celebrated small colleges. Produced by the Thomas Moore Lithography Studio in Boston, Massachusetts between 1836 and 1837, the print features a view of a college campus consisting of multiple buildings, including three large structures known collectively as “The Bricks.”1 Small figures dot the landscape, reminding the viewer of the campus’s human presence, while the large trees and vegetation in the foreground suggest that the current scene has transformed a once rural area. This idyllic scene is not an original image created by Moore’s studio, but rather a reproduction of a painting by Esteria Butler (1814-1891) titled “View of Waterville College,” ca. 1836-1837.
Butler’s painting of Waterville College, known today as Colby College, is one of three paintings of college campuses she completed between 1836 and 1837, and the only one known to still be in existence today. All three of the paintings were subsequently reproduced as lithographs by Moore’s studio during the mid-1830s. Butler’s position as a young female artist raises a series of questions concerning her connection to these all-male institutions and the circumstances around the creation of these three works and their prints.
The history of Waterville College and Butler’s familial connection to the institution appear to be at the center of all three paintings. Chartered in 1813 as the Maine Literary and Theological Institution and renamed Waterville College in 1821, the school was established by a group of local Baptist leaders.2 Between its founding and the production of Butler’s painting, Waterville College underwent significant changes to become established as a prominent institution of higher education in the state.3 It seems that the administration of Waterville College wished to document this new era and celebrate the college by capturing its campus in a painting for the first time.
Esteria Butler’s father was a prominent Baptist minister and leader in the state, as well as a trustee of Waterville College during this period. Acknowledging Esteria’s considerable skill, he may have promoted his daughter for such a project.4 Indeed Butler was known for her artistic talent: at an early age she had painted portrait miniatures of her family members on ivory with watercolors. Her artistic education and training appear to have been in the hands of Miss Elizabeth Lewis, an accomplished drawing and painting teacher, who taught at the school established by Rev. Butler in East Winthrop.5 Members of the college community were also likely familiar with Butler’s work due to her marriage to a Waterville College alumnus and tutor, Jonathan Everett Farnam.6 These may all have been factors in securing Butler’s commission.
Esteria Butler may have been commissioned to paint Bowdoin College by George Evans, a well-known lawyer, politician, and Bowdoin alumnus. Evans was both a trustee of Waterville College and a member of the Board of Overseers at Bowdoin College in 1837.7 With both colleges in constant competition, Evans may have asked Butler to produce a painting of Bowdoin’s campus to contend with and match Waterville College’s new, stylish image.
As for her painting of the Newton Theological Institution, Butler was likely asked to create this image due to her connections to Waterville College and her father’s prominence in the Baptist community. The Newton Theological Institution was the nation’s first Baptist theological seminary and, for many years, the destination of Waterville College graduates.8 As at Bowdoin, the administrators of the Newton Theological Institution were almost certainly familiar with Butler’s work, and likely commissioned her to create a commemorative image of their own campus.
While no documentation exists explaining why these three Butler paintings were reproduced as lithographs, it is likely that each institution hoped to distribute Butler’s images beyond their campuses to alumni and faculty. The fact that her paintings were reproduced in print also indicates that the institutions were satisfied with Butler’s depictions of their respective campuses.
Scholars should reconsider how they classify Butler as an artist: far from being an amateur, she was one of Maine’s first professional female artists. She should also be acknowledged for the influence she held at these institutions. Butler effectively created images that capture the histories of these schools, serving today as some of the earliest visual depictions of the now-famous campuses. Although Butler was barred from attending these institutions because of her gender, they still sought her talent as an artist. Butler will always be deeply entwined with the legacies of these institutions, a formidable accomplishment for a young female artist in rural Maine.
- Bryant F. Tolles, “‘The Bricks’ at Colby (Waterville) College: The Origins of a Lost Campus,” Maine History 39,
no. 4 (2001): 253, accessed October 13, 2020,
- Ernest Cummings Marriner, The History of Colby College, (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1963), http://images.bowdoin.edu/items/show/5446, 2; 47. ↩
- Marriner, The History of Colby College, 46-47. ↩
- Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Waterville College, for the Academical Year 1835-36, (Hallowell, Maine: Glazier, Masters and Smith, 1836), https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/catalogs/103/. ↩
- Everett S. Stackpole, History of Winthrop, Maine, With Genealogical Notes (Auburn, Maine: Merrill and Webster Company, 1925), https://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/me_collection/175/, 108. ↩
- Charles Bowdoin Fillebrown, The Family of Rev. John Butler (Boston: Privately Published, 1908), https://archive.org/details/familyofrevjohnb1908fill, 30. ↩
- Marriner, The History of Colby College, 635. Phillip S. Wilder, ed., General Catalogue of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine: A Biographical Record of Alumni and Officers, 1794-1950, (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 1950), https://archive.org/details/generalcatalogue1950bowd, 9. ↩
- Marriner, The History of Colby College, 47. ↩