American painter, illustrator, and muralist, active also in England. Abbey began his art studies at the age of 14 in his native Philadelphia where he worked with Isaac L. Williams (1817–95). Two years later he enrolled in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art working under Christian Schussele (1824–1979), but by then Abbey was already a published illustrator. In the 1870s his drawings appeared in numerous publications, but it was his work for Harper & Brothers that proved most important to his career. In 1871 he moved to New York, and in 1878, Harper’s sent him on a research trip to England. He found such affinity with the country that he made it his home for the rest of his life. After 1889 he devoted more time to painting, was elected a Royal Academician in 1898, and in 1902 was chosen by Edward VII (reg 1901–10) to make his coronation portrait (London, Buckingham Pal.). Abbey’s best-known work is the series of murals he did for the Boston Public Library and the Pennsylvania State House.
Basing his distinctive style on his love of the Pre-Raphaelites, English book illustration, and English history painting, Abbey did meticulous research for his elegant drawings and paintings. In fact, he was reported to have sometimes spent more on the costumes and props than he could earn from the commissioned work. One reason for his settling in England was not only the general Anglomania of the time, but his particular feeling that history was simply more alive there. His affection for the English countryside as well as his friendship with fellow American expatriate Francis Davis Millet (1846–1912) led to their establishment of an artists’ colony in Broadway, Worcs, between 1885 and 1889, where others including John Singer Sargent joined them. Abbey’s friendship with English painter Alfred Parson (1847–1920) also led to shared studios, exhibitions, travel, and collaboration on several gift-book projects, including Old Songs (1889) and The Quiet Life (1890).
Abbey is best known as an illustrator, and his many projects included drawings for the Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick (1882), Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1887) and The Deserted Village (1902), as well as the Comedies of William Shakespeare (1899). In the late 1880s, however, Abbey also began exhibiting full-scale watercolour and oil paintings that were often based on subjects from his illustrations, especially Shakespeare’s plays (see fig.). His Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (1896; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.) in which Richard is proposing to the widow of a man he has just murdered, is typical with its abundant history-telling details and authentic period costumes, including Richard’s brilliant red robes.
Abbey’s murals for McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library (1890–1901) were based on the theme of the Quest for the Holy Grail. The 15 panels, which fit beautifully into their architectural space, feature such dramatic narratives as Sir Galahad Being Led to the Seat Perilous. Highly praised in their day, they were often compared to Alfred Tennyson’s verse on the same theme. The fame of the murals, as well as the fact that Abbey was a native Pennsylvanian, led to his final commission, the murals for the Pennsylvania State House in Harrisburg (1902–11). While most of his murals up to this point had been based on his theatrical narrative style, many of those for the capitol were more symbolic in character. The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania for the House Chamber is a case in point with its full-blown architectural setting and centrally enthroned allegorical figure. Abbey died of cancer in 1911 before the work was finished, but his widow Gertrude took over the project and under her administration Abbey’s studio assistant Ernest Board (1877–1934), working with the further supervision of John Singer Sargent, completed the last mural and the final installation.
Abbey received most of the recognition and accolades available to artists of his age. In addition to being elected to the Royal Academy in 1898, he was also elected to the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was awarded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ Gold Medal of Honor. He was active in the expansion of the British School in Rome, and his widow established a prize and memorial for him there. In 1937 she left a considerable collection of his work to Yale University. While much celebrated in his own day, Abbey has not always been included in more recent histories of American painting. His work as an illustrator, however, made him one of the best-known artists in the period known as the golden age of illustration.
- H. James: ‘Edwin A. Abbey’, Picture and Text (New York, 1893), pp. 44–5
- E. V. Lucas: Edwin Austin Abbey, Royal Academician: The Record of his Life and Work, 2 vols (London, 1921)
- Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) (exh. cat. by K. A. Foster and M. Quick, New Haven, CT, Yale U., 1973)
- M. Simpson: ‘Windows on the Past: Edward Austin Abbey and Francis Davis Millet in England’, American Art Journal, vol. 22(3) (1990), pp. 62–89
- M. Simpson: Reconstructing the Golden Age: American Artists in Broadway, Worcestershire, 1885–1889 (diss., New Haven, CT, Yale U., 1993)
- C. Waring: ‘The Quest for the Holy Grail’ Murals by Edwin Austin Abbey (diss., University Park, PA State U., 1999)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: The Lady Anne, 1899, Butler Institute of American Art (Youngstown, OH)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, 1900, Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA)
- Parsons, Alfred: When Nature Painted All Things Gay, 1887, Tate (London)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: The Letter, 1890, Tate (London)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: Illustration to 'The Leather Bottel', 1887, Tate (London)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: Illustration to 'Judith Shakespeare', 1883, Tate (London)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: Illustration to 'She Stoops to Conquer', 1885, Tate (London)
- Abbey, Edwin Austin: The Queen in Hamlet, 1895, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institute (Washington, DC)