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The American Artist Who Loved Everything British: Edwin Austin Abbey’s Shakespeare Paintings

Richard III, Abbey's Shakespeare paintings

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The American Artist Who Loved Everything British: Edwin Austin Abbey’s Shakespeare Paintings

King Lear, Abbey's Shakespeare Paintings

Edwin Austin Abbey, “King Lear”, Act I, Scene I, 1898. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painter and illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) was born in America, but he spent most of his career in England. He loved all things British, particularly the works of William Shakespeare. Abbey first visited England in 1878 to research an illustration project. He fell in love with the place and moved there permanently in 1883. He had a successful career illustrating dozens of books, including many of Shakespeare’s plays. However, he eventually switched to oil painting, possibly due to his friendship with John Singer Sargent and other British and American painters. Abbey’s Shakespeare paintings are gorgeous and dramatic.

Fair Is My Love, Abbey's Shakespeare paintings

Edwin Austin Abbey, Fair Is My Love, c. 1900. Preston, UK, Harris Museum and Art Gallery.

His painting style is clearly related to the Pre-Raphaelites, who numbered among his friends. He shared their use of rich colors, love of detail, and medieval settings.  Many people have observed that his style has a lot in common with theatre productions. This is very appropriate for a painter best known for depicting Shakespeare’s tragedies. Fittingly, Abbey’s Shakespeare paintings often seem like they take place on a stage set. Key figures face and gesture towards the front, as though their movements have been choreographed with an audience in mind. Their elaborate period costumes, often in eye-catching shades of red, definitely set the stage, too. Medieval and Renaissance dress features heavily into many of Abbey’s works.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne, Abbey's Shakespeare paintings

Edwin Austin Abbey, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne, 1897. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery.

He definitely had a taste for drama, at least in his paintings if not in his life. Abbey’s Shakespeare paintings usually depict dramatic moments from The Bard’s most intense tragedies. His painting Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (above) shows a tense moment from Shakespeare’s Richard III. The work shows the title character, attempting to seduce Lady Anne, the widow of the man he’s just murdered. The action takes place in the middle of a procession of mourners at her husband’s funeral. Richard’s red cloak and central position immediately draw the eye. He’s an obviously villainous figure. The elaborately-dressed Lady Anne seems keen to get away from him but seems trapped by the procession of mourners behind her. These figures, with their black hoods and red-handled spears take on an unfriendly and even threatening tone. And two young boys appear near the back of the painting. They look a lot like several paintings of the two young princes Richard III is believed to have had killed in order to hold onto his throne. This painting creates so much intrigue in just one scene that viewers want to know what happens next. As you can see from his King Lear painting (top of this page), this is a hallmark of Abbey’s Shakespeare paintings. It’s probably due to his strong illustration background.

The Queen in Hamlet, Abbey's Shakespeare paintings

Edwin Austin Abbey, The Queen in Hamlet, 1895. Washington D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum.

As a true anglophile, Abbey also painted current British history, like King Edward II’s 1902 coronation. This work now hangs in Buckingham Palace. He also received two important commissions back in America. He painted a series of murals, The Quest for the Holy Grail, for the Boston Public Library. He also received a commission to paint a long series of murals showing Pennsylvania history for the Pennsylvania State Capital building. Abbey was originally from Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to complete all the murals.

Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, Abbey's Shakespeare paintings

Edwin Austin Abbey, The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, before 1911. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania State Capital.

After Abbey’s death, his wife Mary Gertrude worked hard to preserve his legacy. First, she arranged for his partially-finished Capital murals to be completed by other artists, including John Singer Sargent. (Violet Oakley, another Pennsylvania-born painter/illustrator with many similarities to Abbey, was hired to complete the rest of the project following the success of her own Capital murals.) Then, Mrs. Abbey organized and donated his entire collection of papers, sketches, etc. to the Yale University Art Gallery. Thanks to her efforts, you can now see all of it at Yale and most of it online. There are hundreds of illustrations showing different scenes from Shakespearean tragedies.

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Alexandra Kiely is an art historian and writer from the United States. She believes that enjoying art is the closest you can get to time travel. She also loves reading, ice skating, and ballroom dance—all arts of a slightly different sort. Visit her at www.ascholarlyskater.com.

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