EDWIN AUSTIN ABBEY 1852-1911
The Lady Anne, 1899
Oil on canvas, 48 X 24" (121.92 x 60.96 cm.)
Museum purchase, 925-0-101
Edwin Austin Abbey, born in Philadelphia, began his training as an artist under Isaac Williams, a portrait and landscape painter who had studied with John Neagle and Christian Schussele, a German-born history painter. By the age of fourteen he had moved to New York, taking a full-time position drawing for Harper and Brothers, the publisher of a news weekly, a literary monthly, and books. In 1878, Harper's sent him to England to do background research for an edition of Robert Herrick's poetry. Every year thereafter he made trips to the Continent or England, where he finally settled in 1882, an expatriate at the age of thirty. Several years later he moved to Gloucestershire, where he became friendly with Frank Millet, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of England's great painters of historic subjects, Frederick Barnard, and John Singer Sargent.
The principle monuments of his career are his murals, Quest for the Holy Grail (1890-1902, Boston Public Library), The Coronation of Edward VII (1902-1904, Buckingham Palace), and the decorations of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg which, unfinished at his death in 1911, were completed by Sargent. Two of his principal oil paintings were May Day Morning (1890, Yale University Art Gallery), his well-received first Royal Academy entry, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (1896, Yale University Art Gallery), which was based on a scene in Shakespeare's Richard III.
The Lady Anne 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.