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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Edwin Austin Abbey

The Coronation of King Edward VII, 1902-07, Edwin Austin Abbey
I have often written about the "Golden Age" of Dutch painting. No doubt several other countries have similar eras of excellence either largely unrecognized or known by other terms. Such periods are fortunate eras when all the social, economic, political, and artistic elements are favorable to the creation of outstanding art as compared to what went before and what came afterwards. The United States had what art historians have come to call the "Golden Age of Illustration." I suppose that phrase has risen to differentiate such work, chiefly for publication, from paintings intended for public display. Perhaps that's not too surprising in that, by and large, the painters' art in the U.S. during this era was "nothing to write home about." In both style and spirit such paintings were decades behind the avant-garde of European artists. Strangely, that was not the case as to the illustrator's art. The "Golden Age of Illustration" has come to encompass the latter part of the 19th-century up through the advent of television.

The beginning and the end of an age.
As with many such "eras" exact dates are ill-defined. Generally speaking this "Golden Age" began with the development of color lithography as applied to mass media printing during the latter part of the 1870s, and ended with the gradual fading of weekly news magazines due to the growing dominance of television advertising (the 1960s). In terms of art eras, that's a very long time and thus it encompasses a tremendous evolution as to painting and drawing styles. The American-born illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey is typical of the earliest part of this era while the passing of Norman Rockwell in 1978 would suggest a definitive closure as to style (above).

Abbey as seen by other artists.
The Queen in Hamlet,
1897, Edwin Austin Abbey
Edwin Austin Abbey was born in Philadelphia in 1852. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He began at an early age as an illustrator for such magazines as Harper's Weekly and Scribner's Magazine. Around 1871, before he was twenty years old, Abbey moved to New York City. His work was strongly influenced by French and German black and white art of the time. By 1875, Abbey was illustrated best-selling books, including Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens, Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick, and She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. He also illustrated a four-volume set. The Comedies of Shakespeare for Harper & Brothers around 1896. Several other illustrations for Shakespearian clas-sics followed such as The Queen in Hamlet (left) and King Lear, Act I, Scene I (below).

King Lear, Act I, Scene I, Edwin Austin Abbey
In 1878 Edwin Abbey moved to England to gather material concerning Robert Herrick. He settled there permanently in 1883. That same year, Abbey was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolors. A well-known British critic praised Abbey as "...a genius of a high order, combining almost inexhaustible creativeness, clearness and vividness of conception, a versatile fancy, a poetic perception of beauty, a quaint, delicate humor, a wonderful grasp of whatever is weird and mysterious, and admirable chiaroscuro, drawing, and composition." Abbey was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1898. In 1902 he was chosen to paint the Coronation of King Edward VII (top). It was the official painting of the occasion, which now resides in Buckingham Palace. In 1907 Abbey receive a knighthood; however, in that he was an American citizen, he was obliged to refuse it.

Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail, 1896-1901,
Boston Public Library, Edwin Austin Abbey
During the 1890s Abbey completed murals for the Boston Public Library as well as a frieze for the Library titled The Quest for the Holy Grail. Working out of his studio in England, it took Abbey eleven years to complete this series of murals. In 1908–09, Abbey began work on an ambitious set of murals and for the newly completed Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. These included allegorical medallion murals representing Science (below), Art, Justice, and Religion for the dome of the Rotunda, as well as four large lunette murals beneath the dome. Abbey was working on the Reading of the Declaration of Independence mural in early 1911, when he was diagnosed with cancer. His studio assistant, Ernest Board, continued work on the mural with little supervision from Abbey but with contributions by John Singer Sergeant. Edwin Austin Abbey died in August of 1911, leaving two rooms of the capitol commission unfinished.

Allegory of Science, Pennsylvania State Capitol, Edwin Austin Abbey
After her husband’s death, Edwin Abbey's wife, Gertrude, was active in preserving her husband’s legacy. She gave her substantial collection and archives to Yale University. Edwin had been a strong supporter of the newly founded British School at Rome so, in memory of her husband, Gertrude Abbey donated £6000 to assist in building the artists’ studio block. Later, in 1926, she founded the Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Scholarships, established to enable British and American painters to pursue their studies.

Near Easthampson, 1878, Edwin Austin Abbey,
one of his rare landscapes.

Death of Mercutio,
Romeo and Juliet, 1903,
Edwin Austin Abbey


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