Friday, March 1, 2013

Artist of the Month: Edwin Austin Abbey

William O'Connor

'Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne' (1896) Yale University Art Gallery

Every February I travel to Boston. I visit with family, enjoy the history, attend Boskone, and make my annual pilgrimage to visit the Boston Public Library to see the Abbey murals, “The Quest for the Holy Grail”.

International artist, portraitist, costume and set designer, painter, muralist and illustrator. One of the first modern artists to rise out of the Golden Age of Illustration at the cusp of the twentieth century, Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911)

Born and trained in Philadelphia, Abbey was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite’s of the 1850’s and first found work as an illustrator for publications like Harper’s Weekly. In 1878 he moved to England to pursue his work as a painter further developing his style looking at British contemporaries like J.W. Waterhouse and L.A. Tadema. Fascinated by the pageantry and drama of the stories of Shakespeare Abbey’s compositions earned him commissions designing sets, costumes and props for the theater. Arguably his greatest master piece is the 15 panel series “Quest for the Holy Grail” for the Boston Public Library that he spent more than a decade painting and completed in 1898. That same year he become a member of the Royal Academy. In 1902 he was commissioned to paint the coronation of King Edward II, and lived out the remainder of his career doing murals for a variety of public buildings and painting Shakespearean subjects.

'King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell' (1898) Metropolitan Museum of Art

'The Play Scene in Hamlet' (1897) Yale University Art Gallery

Abbey has always been one of my favorite painters ever since a child and seeing his King Lear in the American Wing at the Met, and his newly renovated Quest of the Holy Grail murals are worth the trip to Boston alone.  Every time I visit with these paintings I’m reminded of why Abbey has been such an influence on my work with their epic, sweeping tableaus of costume fantasy decades before Panavision and a century before The Lord of the Rings films.  For those of you already familiar with this grandfather of illustration, I urge you to refresh your experience with his work,  and for those of you that have not seen his paintings, get to Boston.

'Quest for the Holy Grail' (1898) Boston Public Library

Thank You,


  1. Thanks for posting this! Several years ago I was handed down a small framed print of "King Lear: Cordelia's Farewell" which once belonged to my great-grandmother with no information on the artist or title and this blog post filled in that gap of information for me.

  2. 'Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne' is one of my favorite paintings. It tells a story, but looks like fine art at the same time. His paintings do look like screen shots from a movie, perfectly composed and lit.

  3. I have two super large Abbey prints, Richard III and the Castle of Maidens, that I bought decades ago at the Ashland Shakespeare festival. He has long been one of my favorites.

    Jody Lee

  4. I have a copy of the catalogue from the 1974 Yale exhibit which includes studies for play scene in Hamlet as well as the Harrisburg Capitol Rotunda murals (and others).

    There's a note that he originally painted all of the pikes in the Duke of Gloucester's funeral procession blade-up, then learned it was not historically accurate to do so and changed all of them!

    This post is a good reminder for me to get myself down to New Haven and finally see some originals.

    1. I just went myself last month. They've reopened several new wings after a year of renovation. Lots of new stuff up.

  5. Thanks for sharing a great artist like this, it minds me of that whispy story telling atmosphere that I've seen in J. W. Waterhouse works. I'm really going to take time to find out more about this artist. Thank you so much! :)

  6. I was just at the library this summer. The work is stunning (and hard to photograph). The also recently renovated Sargent murals are amazing as well. I have been searching for a good book on Abbey's work but have not found it.

    1. Yes-VERY hard to you can tell by the two inferior photos that I took at the bottom of the post, but well worth the trip!

    2. I am spoiled that I get to see his work everyday working at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building!


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