Benjamin Franklin Butler was a lawyer and close friend of President Martin Van Buren, with whom he shared a law practice. This portrait, painted around 1833, when Butler was appointed Attorney General of the United States under president Andrew Jackson, was either commissioned by Van Buren or given to him.
The attentive, alert gaze of the sitter is typical of the work of Chester Harding, an itinerant painter who got his start painting in the frontier towns of Kentucky. Initially self-taught, Harding memorably described the excitement he felt after completing his first portrait in 1816:"The moment I saw the likeness I became frantic with delight: it was like the discovery of a new sense." By the time this portrait was made, Harding had spent three successful years in England and Scotland and had settled in Boston, where he enjoyed celebrity and a busy practice.