Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Edwin Austin Abbey
Source photography si.edu
Author Window & Grove
From Wikimedia

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) was an American artist, illustrator, and painter. He flourished at the beginning of what is now referred to as the "golden age" of illustration, and is best known for his drawings and paintings of Shakespearean and Victorian subjects.
Born in 1852, Edwin Austin Abbey was on staff at Harpers by the time he was 19 and, despite success, recognition and raises, he left to pursue a free-lance career at the age of 22. He returned to Harpers in 1876, at the ripe old age of 24, a wily veteran at the princely sum of $50 a week (more than three times his 1871 initial salary). 1876 was also the American Centennial and one of the many celebratory events was the Centennial Exhibition which brought a wide selection of European paintings to Philadelphia. Abbey was inspired by the English contingent: Leighton, Watt, Boughton, and others. Already a proponent of drawing from life, the work of the Pre-Raphaelites inspired him further. This led to a journey to England in 1878 in the cause of accuracy in his drawings for Herrick's Poems. He remained there for most of his life.
(Been Publishing, I’m Back)

Judith Shakespeare
Her Love Affairs and Other Adventures
Pen and ink over graphite 1884
Source loc.gov/exhibits
From Wikimedia

One of the leading lights in America's Golden Age of Illustration (1870-1930), Edwin Austin Abbey, created this pen and ink drawing for Judith Shakespeare (above), a novel published in 1884. Abbey's rapidly maturing technique and style are evident in this scene drawn with remarkable detail--as seen in his rendering of Judith and her companion, their clothing, controlled use of light and tone, and balanced placement of figures. In the story, Shakespeare's second daughter unwisely allows a young man to have a preliminary look at her father's manuscript of The Tempest. - from the Library of Congress website.

Abbey, 1888

Sketches and Studies

Sketches and Studies

Sketches and Studies
All images from illustrationart.blogspot.com

David Apatoff wrote, "Many people know the work of Edwin Austin Abbey from his famous murals in the Boston library. Still more people know him for his slightly fussy pen and ink illustrations that were so popular in the 19th century. However, if you want to see what Abbey is really made of, check out his wonderful sketches and studies (above)….. Very few people ever see these studies. Many are locked up in the Yale University collection. However, I think they are almost as important as the Boston murals themselves when it comes to appreciating Abbey as an artist."

A Pavane, 1897
A slow processional dance common in Europe (16th century)

The Play Scene in Hamlet , 1897
Yale University Art Gallery
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
From Wikipedia

After a short trip back to New York in 1889, he immediately returned to England, where the lure of authentic costumes could not be denied. On the trip, he convinced himself that his future should be in oil painting. The Shakespeare illustrations, which would continue until 1909, were executed in many media: pen, oil, watercolor and pencil. These were some of his first published oil paintings and his European experience continued to pay dividends. Above is The Play Scene in Hamlet from 1897. Though not part of the Harpers series (this being a submission to the Royal Academy of that year), the composition, staging and power of his work from this period is stunning. And the access to the costumes and stage props so readily available in England lends a sense of reality often missing elsewhere…..
(Been Publishing, I’m Back)
When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was accompanied in the exhibition catalogue by these lines when Hamlet tells Horatio to watch Claudius carefully:
Give him heedful note
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face;
And after, we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming
When Abbey painted the play scene from Hamlet for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1897 his challenge was to avoid a hackeyed rendition of a popular subject and not duplicate Daniel Maclise's famous and familiar painting on the same theme. His solution was innovative and in some respects more critically valid than Maclise's. In his 1842 painting Maclise made the play of Gonzago the main focus of his composition, putting it in the center of the canvas with Hamlet, Ophelia and Horatio on the left side and Gertrude and Claudius on the right. Abbey restores the correct emphasis in Hamlet to the reactions of Claudius and Hamlet's careful observation of his uncle. He does this by placing them in the center of the painting and putting the play within the play completely outside the frame and in the viewer's space. Now everyone looks out from the painting at us and the space occupied by the "mousetrap" play so that we can see and accurately judge the characters' reactions. Everyone--Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and the courtiers--looks outward, with the exception of Hamlet and Horatio (the figure at the far right with just his face visible), who study Claudius's reactions to what he is seeing. Claudius watches the play with a stern gaze that betrays no emotion; Gertrude, on the other hand, distances herself from Claudius, shrinks into a corner, and draws her veil about her face. Ophelia, judging by her benign, open expression, has no idea of the meaning of the play she witnesses. In a scene where facial expressions and physical reactions are so important, Abbey's solution is masterful.
Lucy Oakley notes that some details of Abbey's painting may have been inspired by stage performances he had seen. "Hamlet's purple leggings, cross-gartered in black, resemble those worn by Edwin Booth," whom Abbey could have seen in New York in the 1870s or in London in 1880. Ophelia's dress, first white then pink in progressive versions of the painting, "match those of two of Ellen Terry's costumes in Henry Irving's production, which Abbey must have seen in London during the early 1880s." Irving's play scene also "featured a large cast, including the Fool, a crowd of torch-bearing guards and noblemen, and harpists, all extratextual elements also included by Abbey". Oakley could add another detail from this production as well; the wolf skins upon which Hamlet lies were a vivid touch in Irving's Hamlet.
The torches in Abbey's painting add a sinister and lurid atmosphere; the "infernal glow" behind Claudius, Oakley notes, anticipate the end of the play scene when Hamlet says:
'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And so such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on
(Edwin Austin Abbey, Hamlet (1897) by Harry Rusche, English Department of Emory University (Atlanta, GA) at Shakespeare Illustrated)

Allegorical figure of Science

Allegorical figure of Science

Allegorical figure of Science Author AdMeskens
Rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
From Wikimedia





These four images (above) are taken from the monograph about Edwin Abbey: Edwin Austin Abbey, Royal Academician, The Record of His Life and Work, by E.V. Lucas, 1921, London: Methuen and Company Limited, New York: Charles Scribner's Son….. Abbey was commissioned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to create several works for the state capitol building in Harrisburg. The works adorn the interior of that impressive structure.
(Dailey's home page)

The eparture
From Celtic Twilight

Conquest of the 7 Deadly Sins
From Celtic Twilight

Key to the Castle
From Celtic Twilight

Castle of the Maidens
From Celtic Twilight

Galahad Parts From His Bride: Blanchefleur
From Celtic Twilight

Galahad the Deliverer
From Celtic Twilight

Golden Tree & The Achievement of the Grail
Source nationalgeographic.com
From Wikimedia

As a result of his growing reputation at home and abroad, Abbey was about to undertake what would become his most famous commission. He was invited by American sculptor Auguste Saint-Gaudens in 1890 to produce the mural cycle The Quest for the Holy Grail (above) for the McKim, Mead, and White Boston Public Library, which was completed in 1901.
The decision in 1890 to hire Abbey, a novice painter, to complete a large mural for the Boston Public Library was probably prompted by the artist's friendship with architect-in-chief Charles Follen McKim and with Sargent and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, both of whom also contributed to the library's decoration...Abbey's contiguous series of oil paintings that hang in the delivery room of the library illustrates the theme of the Holy Grail set in twelfth-century France.
(N. Elizabeth Schlatter in the ANB)

Lunette Rotunda Pennsylvania State Capitol

Lunette Rotunda Pennsylvania State Capitol
One of four lunette murals
"symbolize Pennsylvania's spiritual &
industrial contributions to modern civilization"
Author AdMeskens
From Wikimedia

When Abbey was given his largest commission in 1902 to decorate the House and Senate Chambers, the Supreme and Superior Court Room, and rotunda in the Pennsylvania Capitol (above), the artist knew that this monumental project inaugurated a new phase in his career. Thus, he turned all of his energies to this project that he saw as his personal tribute to Pennsylvania and its history.
Abbey executed the Capitol murals in his studio in England. By the spring of 1908, all murals for the rotunda were complete. They were exhibited at the University of London, where they received the highest acclaim. King Edward VII himself expressed regret that these magnificent paintings were leaving England. By 1909 the murals for the Capitol rotunda had been shipped to Harrisburg and were placed at the collar of the dome. Four large circular canvases, 14 feet in circumference, were installed in the pendentives. The four huge crescent-shaped murals, measuring 38 feet by 22 feet, were placed in the lunettes of the rotunda.

Bob Acres and His Servant
Illustration for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals"
Pastel on composition board, 1895
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery
The Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection
From Wikimedia

King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell, 1898
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Source ARC
From Wikimedia

Abbey exhibited King Lear (above), another of his large, dramatic pictures, at the Royal Academy in 1898; the painting was accompanied in the catalog by these lines from Act I, scene i:
Ye jewels of our father, with washed eyes
Cordelia leaves you. I know what you are;
And, like a sister, am most loth to call
Your faults as they are named. Love well our father
To your professed bosoms I commit him.
But yet, alas! stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place
So farewell to you both
The critics saw much to like in Abbey's King Lear. The reviewer for The Art Journal (1898, p. 176) comments especially on the bold use of color and the grouping of the figures on the canvas:
If the admirers of Mr. Abbey felt that the note of the superbly dramatic 'Richard III.' was not repeated with similar force in last year's 'Hamlet and Ophelia,' all doubts should be set at rest by the barbaric majesty of the Scene from 'Lear,' a subject which, under the title of 'Cordelia's Portion,' inspired Madox Brown to the production of one of his finest compositions. The dominant figure in Mr. Abbey's commanding decoration is Cordelia, and it is impossible to resist the colour-charm in which she is invested. Her yellow-green vestment with the deep blue border set against the green robe of France, and opposed to the menacing reds and blacks of Goneril and Regan, is a triumph of originality. As in Richard III. there is a strong suggestion motion, and the drooping figure of Lear sustained by his pages and followed by his men-at-arms from the left to right of the canvas gives this note. The dramatic figure of the sisters in the attitudes of dignified indifference and mock courtesy are splendidly realized, and the foot-light effect discernible throughout the picture certainly adds to the intenseness of the composition. Unmistakably in this important group, Mr. Abbey has reached a very high level and is going far to prove, by this magnificent series of object lessons, that his decorative style is capable of giving the fullest expression of dramatic motives.
Lucy Oakley in her remarks on the painting sees even more detailed imagery:
The sinuous red border of Goneril's cloak resembles the coil and spring of a cobra, its line continuing up through her arm and ending in the fisted hand poised beneath her chin, with two fingers extended like the forked tongue of a snake. The reptilian effect is reinforced in the stiff, haughty pose of the head and in the steely expression of a character whom Shakespeare often identifies with snakes..... Regan's dress is decorated with figures of large beasts. . . . The red color of her dress, the low, central knotting of her hip-slung belt, and the long riverine fall of its cords through the valley created by the raising of her skirt all focus attention on her female sex, with its connotations of mystery, blood, and darkness.
Oakley perhaps risks over reading the details of the painting in her comments, but Abbey does seem to echo the 133 references to 64 different animals that form a large measure of the textured imagery Shakespeare creates in King Lear.
(Edwin Austin Abbey, King Lear (1898) by Harry Rusche, English Department of Emory University (Atlanta, GA) at Shakespeare Illustrated)

Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne
From arcticpenguin's photostream at flickr

The Lady Anne
Oil on canvas, 1899
From all-art.org
The Lady Anne (left) was painted in 1899, several years after the major painting, Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The Lady Anne cannot, therefore, be called a study for the larger painting, but might more aptly be termed an "afterthought," or a kind of Remarque. Looking at this painting from the vantage point of today, one would not guess at the historical or narrative content, and so we must assume that Abbey's motivation in making the painting was more an abstract interest in composition, and in that sense The Lady Anne is closer than most of his other work to fine art than illustration. The romantic pose is typical of Abbey's work, but the dramatic contrast of light and dark are somewhat unusual. The sinuous line made by the figure, with the hands as an important focus, reminds us of Sargent's portrait compositions. The painting lacks the obsessive historic detail for which Abbey was renowned in his day, but now this very lack of interference from details makes this a more accessible and attractive example of his work.
Edwin Abbey was a man whose facility for illustration subverted his potential and reputation as a fine artist. A major portion of his career was spent in the fulfillment of illustration and mural commissions. He was fascinated by medieval England and English literature, and was lucky to have an equally interested public. Because of his affiliation with Harper's, Abbey's audience was large.
Abbey's career was driven more by his imagination of historic events than by his direct observation of the light and life around him, for he surely had sufficient ability to place him among the best of his contemporaries. In choosing to be an illustrator of medieval life he satisfied a personal and public interest, rather than breaking new ground as an observer or technician.
(JOSEPH KEIFFER at butlerart.com)
In 1902 he was chosen to paint the coronation of King Edward VII. It was the official painting of the occasion and, hence, resides at Buckingham Palace. In 1907 he declined an offer of knighthood in order to retain his U.S. citizenship. Friendly with other expatriate American artists, he summered at Broadway, Worcestershire, England, where he painted and vacationed alongside John Singer Sargent at the home of Francis Davis Millet.

The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Glouster, 1900
Museum of Art
The Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
From History of Art

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, is accused of witchcraft. Her supposed co-conspirators are to be executed, but she is exiled to the Isle of Man. In Scene iv she is forced to do public penance. The directions say, "Enter the Duchess barefoot in a white sheet, with verses pinned upon her back and a taper burning in her hand, with the Sheriff and Officers and Sir John Stanley. A crowd following." She gets no help from her husband Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the uncle of Henry VI and the Protector of the young king; Gloucester advises, "Be patient, gentle Nell; forget this grief." Eleanor then foretells the fall of her husband through the machinations of his enemies Suffolk, York and Cardinal Beaufort. Abbey, with his usual attention to the text and to historical detail, captures the poignancy of the moment when Eleanor, frail, humiliated and abandoned, prophesies:
Ah, Gloucester, teach me to forget myself!
For whilst I think I am thy married wife
And thou a prince, protector of this land,
Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mail'd up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.
The ruthless flint doth cut my tender feet,
And when I start, the envious people laugh
And bid me be advised how I tread.
Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke?
Trow'st thou that e'er I'll look upon the world,
Or count them happy that enjoy the sun?
No; dark shall be my light and night my day;
To think upon my pomp shall be my hell.
Sometime I'll say, I am Duke Humphrey's wife,
And he a prince and ruler of the land:
Yet so he ruled and such a prince he was
As he stood by whilst I, his forlorn duchess,
Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock
To every idle rascal follower.
But be thou mild and blush not at my shame,
Nor stir at nothing till the axe of death
Hang over thee, as, sure, it shortly will;
For Suffolk, he that can do all in all
With her that hateth thee and hates us all,
And York and impious Beaufort, that false priest,
Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings,
And, fly thou how thou canst, they'll tangle thee:
But fear not thou, until thy foot be snared,
Nor never seek prevention of thy foes.
(Edwin Austin Abbey. The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, 1900 by Harry Rusche, English Department of Emory University (Atlanta, GA) at Shakespeare Illustrated)

Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, 1911
Source legis.state.pa.us
From Wikimedia

When Abbey died suddenly in 1911, his widow administered the completion and installation of the House murals. The artist had completed three works for the House: The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania(above), Penn's Treaty, and The Hours, the latter of which is located on the ceiling. The Reading of the Declaration of Independence for the House Chamber had been partially completed. This painting was finished by Ernest Board, a member of Abbey's studio, under the supervision of John Singer Sargent, a close personal friend and neighbor. Only one mural had been executed for the Senate chamber entitled The Camp of the American Army at Valley Forge, February 1778. This painting, completed in 1910, had originally been placed in the Senate Chamber. As a result of Abbey's untimely death, it was removed and relocated onto a north wall in the rear of the House Chamber where it remains today.

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