The son of Rev. Thomas Henry and Sarah Neely Busey, Norval Hamilton Busey was born in Virginia on December 28, 1845. Within five years, the family settled in Baltimore, and young Norval found work at Stanton & Butler, a photographic firm that specialized in cartes-de-visite. In 1867, Mr. Busey relocated to York, Pennsylvania, where he operated his own studio for three years. He married Emma Virginia Laley, and the couple would later have three daughters and son Norval Jr.
Mr. Busey returned to Baltimore with his young family in 1870, and opened a new studio on the fashionable Charles Street. The gallery's elegant decor was particularly well suited to its elite clientele. The 23x40 foot reception area was particularly striking with its green carpeting and stylish antique furniture. The skylight faced north, with the seldom used side light coming from the northwest, controlled by pasteboard blinds. The next floor housed the washing and finishing rooms, and the printing, solar camera, and negative rooms were situated on the third floor. Mr. Busey's approach to portrait photography was unconventional for its time in that he did not employ gimmicky props or gaudy backdrops because he felt that the viewer's gaze should always focus on the subject. However, he did adopt an elaborate signature for his portraits in a style reminiscent of celebrity photographer Napoleon Sarony.
Although a successful businessman, Mr. Busey never sacrificed art to turn a profit. His attention to the subtle nuances of posing and lighting set his portraiture apart from his contemporaries. Therefore, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that his focus began to shift to painting. He packed up his family to study in Paris under master painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. After eight years in France, he continued his training for another three years in Milan. As a portrait painter, Mr. Busey perfected his technical precision, but perhaps more importantly, learned how to leave the indelible imprint of his own cultural background and life experience in his portraits. He once explained, "The characteristics of every artist are perceptible in his works, the portraits of one being distinguished by gracefulness and elegance, and of another stamped with grossness and brutality." While he acknowledged the formidable challenge of children as portrait subjects due to their restlessness, Mr. Busey maintained a beautiful young woman was “the most difficult model of all,” because art should never attempt to improve upon natural perfection.
In 1900, Mr. Busey returned stateside, settling his family in New York City. He opened a fashionable studio and gallery that included a display of his friend Arthur Quartley's breathtaking seascapes. After the death of his wife Emma in 1926, Mr. Busey's health began to decline, and he died at the Illinois home of his daughter Ina on May 20, 1928. His portraits of the Duke family currently hang at Duke University's Lilly Library.
1900 The Art Interchange, Vol. XLIV (New York: The Art Interchange Company), pp. 34-35.
2012 Norval H. Busey (Baltimore MD) (URL: http://www.itsallaboutfamily.com/j3/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2103:busey&catid=2385&Itemid=101&lang=en).
2010 Norval H. Busey, Photographer and Painter (URL: http://19thcenturybaltimore.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/norval-h-busey).
1871 The Photographer's Friend, Vol. I (Baltimore: Richard Walzl), pp. 53-54.
1915 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LII (New York: Edward L. Wilson Company, Inc.), p. 578.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera