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Edwin Austin Abbey
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A painter and illustrator who worked in England for most of his career, Edwin Austin Abbey was one of the most popular American artists at the turn of the 20th century. He rose from an apprenticeship at a Philadelphia publishing house to an appointment as court painter for Britain’s King Edward VII (1841-1910). Born in Philadelphia in 1852, Abbey was educated in local schools and as a teenager took drawing lessons from the Philadelphia painter Isaac L. Williams (1817-1895). In 1868 he began working as an apprentice draftsman for the publishers Van Ingen & Snyder while taking night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The magazine Harper’s Weekly published Abbey’s drawing Thanksgiving-Day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England in 1870. The following year he moved to New York City to work as an illustrator for Harper & Brothers, which published his drawings in Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Monthly and several books. Abbey’s art was greatly influenced by British illustrators and often depicted British locations and figures in costumes of the 18th century. In addition to illustrations Abbey also painted watercolors. He exhibited at the American Water Color Society’s show in New York in 1874 and was made a member of that Society in 1876. Along with fellow artists Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), the architect Stanford White (1853-1906) and others Abbey founded the Tile Club in 1877, a social club whose members painted decorative tiles for sale, created books and wrote articles for magazines. Harper’s sent Abbey to England in 1878 to do research for illustrations of the poems of Robert Herrick (1591-1674) being published in Harper’s Monthly. Abbey found England so congenial that he stayed there for the rest of his life, with occasional trips back to New York. He also traveled to the European continent, often in the company of the English painter Alfred Parsons (1847-1920) or the American painter Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912). Abbey continued to draw illustrations for Harper’s magazines, many of which were published as books after being serialized in Harper’s Monthly, including two of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728?-1774) works, She Stoops to Conquer and The Deserted Village. In 1885 Abbey began living in the Cotswold village Broadway, Worcestershire, along with Millet, Parsons, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the writer Henry James (1843-1916) and others. In 1888 Abbey began illustrating Shakespeare’s comedies for publication in Harper’s Monthly, eventually creating 133 drawings. Abbey began to paint in oils in 1889, probably encouraged by his friends Parsons and Sargent. His first major oil painting, May Day Morning (New Haven: Yale Univ. Art G.), received favorable reviews when shown at the British Royal Academy’s 1890 summer exhibition. While he continued to create illustrations, such as those for Harper’s Monthly illustrating Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, Abbey’s main focus was on paintings. He married Gertrude Mead (1851-1931) in 1890, who helped him secure the commission for murals decorating the Delivery Room in the then-new Boston Public Library, designed by his old Tile Club friend Stanford White’s firm McKim, Mead & White. Abbey completed The Quest for the Holy Grail, 15 eight-foot-high panels totaling 194 feet in length, in 1901. During the 1890s he also painted several large paintings, including seven on Shakespearean themes, as well as watercolors and pastels, which he exhibited both in London and New York. Abbey undertook meticulous research to prepare for his works, involving travel throughout Britain and the Continent. He was commissioned to paint a mural for London’s Royal Exchange in 1896 and a painting commemorating King Edward VII’s coronation in 1901. Then in 1902 he was asked to paint huge murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, a task that was completed by Sargent after Abbey’s death from cancer in 1911. Abbey received numerous honors during his lifetime, including memberships in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Academy of Design, Britain’s Royal Academy and Royal Watercolour Society and the French Legion of Honor. He received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. He won medals for his works at expositions in Paris and Vienna. King Edward offered Abbey a knighthood in 1907, which he declined so that he could remain an American citizen. (TNB 10/2014) Selected bibliography: Foster, Kathleen A. and Michael Quick, ed. Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911). Exhibition catalog. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1973. Oakley, Lucy and Allen Staley. Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey’s Shakespearean Subjects. Exhibition Catalog. New York: Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, 1994.