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Edwin Austin Abbey

Dirge of the Three Queens, 1895

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852 – 1911)

Edwin Austin Abbey was essentially the last in the line of American artists-including Benjamin West, Mather Brown, John Singleton Copley, and Washington Allston-who went to England to pursue history painting and worked their way up the professional ladder to receive the highest honors at the English court. The path he took, however, was distinctly different from his artistic forebears.

Abbey didn’t start to paint in oil until he was 40 years of age. Before that time, he had distinguished himself as an illustrator, becoming one of that field’s most celebrated talents at a time when the publishing industry and its use of commercial illustration rapidly ascended to prominence. Born in Philadelphia, Abbey first studied art at the age of fourteen, when he took lessons from Isaac L. Williams, a local portrait and landscape painter. Two years later, he entered the publishing firm of Van Ingen & Snyder, for whom he worked as an apprentice draftsman, and enrolled in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1870, Abbey moved to New York, the publishing center of America, to seek work as an illustrator. In 1870, Harper’s Weekly published its first drawing by Abbey, and the following year the Harper & Brothers publishing company hired him as a full-time house illustrator. Abbey became an active presence in the art clubs of New York, exhibiting for the first time at the American Water Color Society in 1874, and helping to found the Tile Club along with five other younger artists in 1875.

Abbey remained with Harper & Brothers until 1878. During that time, he evinced a preference for literary subjects from Renaissance England. Abbey had fallen under the spell of England and its potential for representation in the fine arts while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy. His teacher there, Christian Schuessele, was a noted exponent of Shakespearean themes. But beyond Schuessele’s direct influence, Abbey as a student embarked on a long and passionate study of the work of the British Pre-Raphaelites, including especially William Holman Hunt, Sir John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although he did not wholeheartedly emulate their practices. While he was seduced by the truthful, realistic style of the Pre-Raphaelites, Abbey once said that his goal was “the representation of events not as they might be supposed to poetically to have happened, but as they really might have happened” (Lucas, op. cit., p. 189)-he rejected the social relevance for which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood strove.

Above all, Abbey’s fascination lay in the grand, medieval costume scenes and literary allusions of Rossetti and the younger members of his coterie of followers, Edward Burne-Jones and Val Prinsep. These modern-day British medievalists’ large-scale, sumptuously colored canvases served as Abbey’s guiding light throughout his career.

In 1878, sensing perhaps that Abbey’s talents would be best served by visiting England, Harper & Brothers sent him on what would prove to be a fateful trip to that country, where he was to immerse himself in England’s literary past as research for a series of illustrations based on Robert Herrick’s poetry. With an eye on Herrick but his mind forever thinking of the Bard, Abbey traveled to Stratford-on-Avon before settling in London for the winter. He stayed abroad for two years, living principally in London but also traveling to Paris and Munich, where he studied very briefly with a student of the German academician, Wilhelm Diez. He came back to New York in 1881, but the very next year he returned to England, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.

Abbey became a fixture in the London art world. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, he was accepted among the Pre-Raphaelite circle as one of their own. He also befriended two other Americans who expatriated themselves to England, Frank Millet and John Singer Sargent. He was elected a member of the Royal Institute of the Painters in Water Colour in 1883, and in 1885, he exhibited a drawing for the first time at the Royal Academy. In 1888, Abbey had his first show in England when he exhibited with Alfred Parsons at the Fine Arts Society, London.

Abbey married Mary Gertrude Mead in New York in 1890, and, the following year, the Abbeys moved into “Morgan Hall,” a splendid house in the town of Fairford, in Gloucestershire, England, where Abbey had summered since 1885. Abbey’s work continued to grace the pages of magazines and books in England and America, and he achieved a reputation as one of the finest and most popular illustrators of his day. But despite the fame accorded him as an illustrator and the security that this provided, Abbey perhaps sensed that in order to achieve true greatness, he would have to distinguish himself in the highest realm of the fine arts, oil painting.

Abbey’s first oil painting was “May-Day Morning” (1890-94, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), a large, richly colored canvas of two figures strolling through a walled flower garden. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy that spring, the first appearance of his work at that institution since he showed a drawing there in 1885. Abbey’s first decorative project was “A Game of Bowls”, a mural done in 1890 for the Hotel Imperial in New York through the connection of the American architect, Stanford White, who designed the building. Thus began a long and productive association between the painter and the architect. (The mural is now in the New York Racquet and Tennis Club, which was designed by McKim, Mead & White.)

In 1890, with only two oil paintings behind him, Abbey received the commission for the greatest work of his career: he was to join John Singer Sargent and the great French artist and decorator, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, to provide a series of decorations for the newly built Boston Public Library. The library was designed by McKim, Mead & White, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens was put in charge of the interior decorations. Saint-Gaudens approached Abbey with the commission to paint fifteen panels for the Library’s Delivery Room. Abbey accepted, and expanded his studio at Morgan Hall to accommodate the massive project, and he and Sargent worked side-by-side on their respective components of the commission in its spacious interior. Abbey settled on the subject of the legend of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The Boston Public Library commission was hailed as a major triumph, and it vaulted Abbey into the forefront of American art. He was hailed as a living old master, and he rapidly became one of the most sought-after talents the field of decoration.

Over the next two decades, Abbey distinguished himself as the preeminent American decorative painter and muralist, and he received a host of honors, awards, and distinguished commissions. In 1897, Yale University awarded Abbey an honorary Master of Arts degree, and in 1902 the University of Pennsylvania conferred the honorary degree of LL.D. upon him. In 1898 he was elected a Royal Academician following the smashing success of his The Play Scene in “Hamlet” (1897; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), which was shown at the Academy the previous year. Also in 1898, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts acknowledged Abbey’s eminence in the field of art by presenting him with its Gold Medal of Honor.

In 1900, Abbey exhibited his “Hamlet” in the American Section at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it garnered a gold medal. In 1901, Abbey was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design, New York, and was also elected president of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. In 1902, King Edward VII made Abbey official court painter of the King’s coronation, and that same year he accepted a prestigious commission to decorate the new state capitol at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1904, Abbey was elected president of the Bath Society of Artists, and 1905 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A tireless worker, Abbey suffered a physical breakdown in 1906. Although he spent six months traveling in an effort to heal, Abbey never fully recovered, and after a protracted illness of several months, he died in London in 1911. That year, a huge exhibition of over 300 works selected by his dear friend, John Singer Sargent, was shown in a memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy. Conscious of Abbey’s lifelong identification as an American artist, Abbey’s widow, Gertrude, donated a huge cache of some 2,000 of Abbey’s paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, in 1931.

One of the most important private commissions of Abbey’s career was a decorative panel for the dining room of the New York house owned by Whitelaw Reid, editor-in-chief and chief proprietor of the New York Tribune. The commission came at an intensely busy period for Abbey, as he was at that time still working on a number of projects, including the Boston Public Library commission; a mural measuring 17 x 11 feet for the Royal Exchange, London; and his celebrated The Play Scene in “Hamlet”.

Whitelaw Reid was a prominent and distinguished public figure in national and international politics. In addition to his highly influential role as an editor of one of New York’s most important newspapers, Reid served as the United States minister to France (1889-92); the Republican Party’s nominee for Vice President (1892); Special Ambassador to the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria of England (1897); a member of the American commission to negotiate peace with Spain (1898); Special Ambassador to the Coronation of King Edward II (1902); and the United States ambassador to Great Britain (1905-12). He died in London in 1912.

In November 1886, Reid and his wife, Elisabeth Mills Reid, the daughter of San Francisco banker Darius Ogden Mills, purchased one of the six residences in the famous Villard House for $350,000. The house stands on Madison Avenue in New York and was designed by Joseph M. Wells of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Originally built by, and named after, railroad financier Henry Villard (1835-1900) in 1881, the Italianate Villard House, actually a set of six townhouses designed to appear as a single dwelling, was modeled after the stately and somewhat austere Palazzo Cancelleria in Rome, and became one of the most sumptuous and spectacularly decorated mansions of the Gilded Age.

Each of the houses received different decorative treatments, but the greatest attention was lavished on Villard’s own house, the same house that the Reids purchased after Villard filed for bankruptcy in 1883. However, the ambitious decorative program originally planned for Villard’s own house had only been half-completed by the time the Reids took ownership of the property. They soon embarked on an expansive series of renovations and decorations that were more in accord with their own taste-and in the process greatly upscaled the plans for the already imposing domicile.

For the new decorations, Reid turned to Stanford White to oversee personally the planning and design. The original design of the dining room of the Reid/Villard House was mostly left intact, except for the addition of a number of electric lights to replace the gasoliers that had previously illuminated the luxurious interior. The room’s original decorations included an ornate decorated ceiling executed by Francis Augustus Lathrop (1849-1909), a student of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris and Abbey’s neighbor in New York in the mid-1870s, and featured two elaborate fireplace installations designed by Augustus and Louis Saint-Gaudens. On one end of the wood-paneled room was a wall done entirely in marble, with three figures carved in relief above the fireplace and two recessed basins on either side, while at the other end of the long room was another similarly ornate fireplace that projected prominently into the room. The major addition to the ensemble was Abbey’s decorative panel, “A Pavane”, commissioned expressly for the dining room, to be installed over the latter fireplace.

The genesis of “A Pavane” is documented in a number of oil studies, drawings and pastel sketches made by Abbey in preparation for Reid’s panel that are now in The Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection at Yale. These sketches, which range from simple charcoal drawings to a full-blown study in pastel, gold paint, and gouache that is half the size of the final canvas, provide an extraordinary record of the formal development of the Reid commission. Further insight into the painting’s creation can be gained from a series of letters from Whitelaw Reid to Stanford White (Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers, op. cit.), which chronicle the Reids’ response to the work and document several important changes to the composition that were made at the Reids’ request.

The letters show that Abbey came recommended to the Reids through Stanford White, and that it was through White that the communication between the parties was made (this corrects a frequently repeated error that Whitelaw Reid commissioned the painting directly from Abbey). The artist, of course, had already established a strong working relationship with White. Abbey’s first decorative project, for the Hotel Imperial, had been secured through Stanford White, and Abbey also had been engaged to produce a decorative panel similar to “A Pavane”, known as “Fiammetta’s Song” (1894).

At the time of the Reid commission, Abbey, too, was working with White and Saint-Gaudens on the Boston Public Library decorations, the first half of which was put in place in 1895, the remainder of the decorations not to be installed until 1901. White therefore had good reason to recommend Abbey for the Reids’ sumptuous new home, and, in a letter to White, Whitelaw Reid expressed his admiration for Abbey and optimism for the project:

“I agree with you that Abbey is a great man. If I hadn’t thought so, I shouldn’t have authorized the elaborate eulogies he has repeatedly received in The Tribune-especially of late over the Shakespeare. Neither should I accept the price named without some hesitation, if I didn’t have your view about his standing. Even in spite of his standing it does look a little big, as compared with the figure of La Farge’s commission for two paintings in the music room. But if he will make the picture what I believe he can, I shall be perfectly satisfied” (letter, Whitelaw Reid to Stanford White, December 14, 1895, Aline and Eero Saarinen Papers).

While the price referred to-$5,000-seemed a bit steep even to people as wealthy as the Reids, it did not dissuade them from engaging Abbey for the project.

Biography from the Archives of AskART