“This man had the hand of destiny on his life from birth,” Robert Butler’s friend and co-author Sheila Munoz told The Lakeland Ledger in 2014. And it was a destiny that would lead him to a life of success as a painter, enough success, in fact, that he was able to support his family of 9 children throughout his life on his painting alone.
Born in Baxley, Ga. in 1943, Butler and his mother moved to Okeechobee, Fla. when he was four. As a young hunter, he came to know the Everglades well and learned to “’read’ the land,” as The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, puts it. This familiarity and skill later served him well as a painter of Florida’s interior landscapes.
As a student Butler enjoyed drawing and painting, and various sources cite his first sale of a painting, for $35, as having been to a teacher. After graduating high school, Butler did odd maintenance jobs and mowed lawns to earn money. As he described it in his posthumously published second autobiography, Timeless Echoes: The Life and Art of Robert Butler, it was from the windows of the local hospital – where a client of his mowing service had helped him land a job as an orderly – that Butler first discovered his desire to paint sunsets and began painting in earnest. The doctors who surrounded him proved a good source of encouragement – and income – and it wasn’t long before Butler was working full-time as a painter.
“I was swimming in this fantastic psychological soup at the time; I came from this poor background and yet this door was opening wide for me, to this universe that could be explored forever,” The Highwaymen Trail reports Butler telling St. Petersburg Times journalist Jeff Klinkenberg. “I wanted to paint as much as I could and never looked back.”
Never directly influenced by the Highwaymen in Fort Pierce and Gifford, Butler developed his own “fast style” of painting, and initially stuck close to home. He would paint in the center of town, finding buyers in local businesses and passers-by. As his family grew, he struck out on the road and began selling from his car sometime around 1968. “There’s nothing in the world like nine children to get you up on your feet and out the door painting and selling,” The Highwaymen Trail reports him saying.
By the early 90s, Robert Butler was considered one of the best landscape painters in Florida and owned a thriving gallery in Lakeland from which he sold his work. Popular with a wide audience, his pieces were especially sought-after by hunters and outdoor aficionados and could command as much as $7,500 per piece. Butler is known for the figures in his paintings, especially turkeys, bears, hunting dogs, cattle, and even the occasional cowboy. “He painted every Florida ecosystem with an abiding love for the swamps, palmetto flats, hardwood forests, rivers, lakes, pine flats, and wildlife of wild Florida,” a Museum of Florida Art and Culture exhibition note on the artist said, and was particularly known for his, “fine detail and a dramatic, romantic lighting.”
Robert Butler died in Lakeland on March 19, 2014. Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 with his fellow Highwaymen painters, his work is still highly sought-after by collectors from around the world.