Margaret Butler was born in Greymouth on the West coast of New Zealand in 1883. She began her artistic career as a painter but later transferred to sculpture after the establishment of a sculpture course at Wellington Technical College in 1908. While at the College, she trained under Joseph Ellis, a traditionalist who insisted on a close attention to nature. Ellis taught his students how to make busts in clay cast them in plaster and then colour them to look like bronze. Her first exhibited piece was a head of the family gardener, the same year she completed a head of politician Sir William Hall-Jones and exhibited it at the Wembley Exhibition. Butler exhibited with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts from 1906 into the 1920s. Her work from this period is in the late Victorian, New Sculpture style.
In 1923, she travelled to Europe to further her artistic training. In Paris she trained with one of Rodin’s followers Antoine Bourdelle. In 1927 Butler exhibited various studies of heads in the Salon des Tuileries, in that same year she also exhibited in the Salon des Beux-Arts and the Paris Salon. The exhibited heads included Francoise (á Concarneau), Tête de Vieille Bretonne (Marie) and Le Vieux Marin. She exhibited in established circles and held a solo show of her work at the Galerie Hébrard in Paris, in 1927. François Thiébault-Sisson, who championed the work of Degas, wrote of Butler in Le Temps: ‘This artist has real talent for sculpture. She is very gifted. One visit to the Hébrard Gallery proves this. This is not the last we shall hear of this artist who analyses with penetration all the types of humanity that she portrays’ . An article in the Dominion in 1939 stated ‘She immortalized types of Britony with surety and perspicacity’, indeed Butler was adept at capturing the spirit of people.
Returning to New Zealand in 1934, Butler set up a studio on the Terrace in Wellington and completed a series of master works of Māori subjects, specifically women. These works include La Nouvelle Zélande, Miriama, Maori Madonna, and Pani and are characterized by a classical clarity and simplicity. Sadly, Butler, like many New Zealand artist returning from overseas, found little encouragement at home although she continued to exhibit. La Nouvelle Zélande and Maori Madonna, both modelled on Miriama Heketa, A Ngati Poneke Young Māori Group performer were exhibited in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art in 1940 and mark the zenith of her career.