Born on the Isle of Wight, England in 1817, James Edward Buttersworth moved to America in the mid-1840s. His English and early European paintings greatly resembled those of English marine painter Thomas Buttersworth, with whom the younger artist, "shared not only common interests in the same type of ships, but also preferred the same pale green-gray tonalities for painting water. Their points of view further join in confining these pictures to a few vessels well placed in open but moderate seas, and engaging in coherently related actions. The regularized treatment of the choppy waves and dramatic formations of cloudsespecially recall parallel effects in [Thomas Buttersworth's] work." (J. Wilmerding, American Marine Painting, New York, 1987, p. 146) During the 1850s, however, Buttersworth shifted his focus to New York Harbor and mid-Atlantic coastal views, particularly the depiction of clipper ships and yacht races as seen in the present work.
"In the nineteenth century, progress was measured by the speed with which packets, clippers, and steamers could cross the Atlantic. The deeply entrenched competitive spirit of America fueled a cult of speed. This was nowhere more evident than in international yacht racing. The America's Cup became a focus of patriotic sentiment, and racing became a spectator sport." (R.B. Grassby, Ship, Sea & Sky: The Marine Art of James Edward Buttersworth, New York, 1994, p. 95) Yacht racing allowed James Edward Buttersworth to simultaneously convey the elegant power of the ships and demonstrate his acute draftsmanship and mastery in the depiction of water and sky. The artist adeptly combines these three elements in Yachts Racing to imbue the work with a sense of movement and convey the exhilaration of the competition.
In Yachts Racing the sky is fair, the sails are billowing and the water is slightly choppy indicating superb weather for the race. Buttersworth creates depth in the picture through a progressive diminution in the scale of the ships while preventing the limitless horizon from overwhelming the composition by integrated small ships, far in the distance, between the yachts. As demonstrated in the present work, the artist, "always portrayed ships in an appropriate context and related them to their natural function. Whereas his clippers are majestic and dignified, his yachts have a fragile power and grace of movement at high speed. Buttersworth captured the breathtaking performance of these small craft, the skill and aggressiveness of their hands, the excitement and drama of the race, and the dreams and disappointments of the winners and losers." (Ship, Sea & Sky: The Marine Art of James Edward Buttersworth, p. 95)