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Edward Austin Abbey - American Artist From Art History

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Historical Artist - Edward Austin Abbey (1852 - 1911)

Although born in America, Edwin Austin Abbey received most of his success in England working as an illustrator, painter, and etcher. He was known for his historical scenes and murals done for public commissions. The latter of these included a mural done for the Boston Public Library that depicted the search for the Holy Grail and a painting produced for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Probably his finest works, Abbey’s illustrations were regularly seen in Harper’s Weekly. Abbey remained an American citizen but spent the majority of his life at his residence in Gloucestershire.

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.

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.

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