Saturday, September 23, 2006

Edwin Austin Abbey

Edwin Austin Abbey
Edwin Austin Abbey was an American illustrator and muralist. Born here in Philadelphia, he moved to New York as a teenager (not that the term “teenager” was used in those days) and began doing illustration for Harper’s. When he was in his 20’s, Harper’s sent him to England to do research for an illustration project and he became a lifelong Anglophile, settling in London when he was 30.

He was one of the great pen and ink illustrators of the “Golden Age” of illustration. As his career progressed, he moved into painting and large scale murals. He was commissioned to do murals for the Boston Public Library, along with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and painter John Singer Sargent, with whom he was friends, and created large scale works based on the quest for the Holy Grail. He also did murals and decorations for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, which were finished by Sargent after Abbey’s death.

He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and shared their fondness for subjects from English literature, particularly Shakespeare. He did a series of wonderful works based on scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, such as the scene from Hamlet, above.

I’ve been unable to find many reproductions of his murals on the web. There are somewhat better resources for his painted illustrations. One of the best sources for his pen and ink work is Paul Giambarba’s nicely illustrated article on 100 Years of Illustration and Design.

There is a page on the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery that features some of Abbey’s work as well as Sargent’s charcoal portrait of him.

Abbey’s images were rich in detail, vibrant in color, full of intense contrasts of dark and light and populated by graceful figures and dramatic faces.

6 thoughts on “Edwin Austin Abbey

  1. irene gallo

    Great post! I stumbled into the Abbey murals in the Boston library when I was looking for the Sargent’s. The Abbey’s floored me…I mean, just floored me! I too was frustrated to see that there isn’t much available on them.

  2. Anne Napoli

    If you ever get the chance to see Richard Duke of Gloucester and the Lady Anne at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, CT, do it. It’s amazing. And pay close attention to the upper left corner of the painting. Read Shakespeare’s Richard III before seeing it if you have the chance, or even the cliff notes, if you are not familiar with the history. It’s not necessary to enjoy the work, which is overwhelmingly beautiful in its size and detail (and the sheer time it took to paint), but it makes it all that more interesting. And, little known fact – he repainted every one of the spears (halberds?) when he found out they were not historically accurate the first way he did it.

  3. scott caple

    Dear Charley,
    Re: E A Abbey, there is a small book on him that came out about 1977, a catalogue of a show that happened then. Some good reproductions of sketches and studies, and the Richard III painting on the cover.

    I have yet to go to Boston and see those murals.

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