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Edwin Austin Abbey

Edwin Austin Abbey
Edwin Austin Abbey, ca. 1870
Born (1852-04-01)April 1, 1852
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died August 1, 1911(1911-08-01) (aged 59)
Nationality American
Education Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Known for Painting

Edwin Austin Abbey (April 1, 1852 – August 1, 1911) was an American artist, illustrator, and painter. He flourished at the beginning of what is now referred to as the "golden age" of illustration, and is best known for his drawings and paintings of Shakespearean and Victorian subjects, as well as for his painting of Edward VII's coronation.[1][2][3] His most famous work, The Quest of the Holy Grail, resides in the Boston Public Library.


  • Biography 1
  • Marriage and legacy: The Abbey Awards 2
  • Works by Abbey 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6


Abbey was born in Philadelphia in 1852. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts[4] under Christian Schuessele. Abbey began as an illustrator, producing numerous illustrations and sketches for such magazines as Harper's Weekly (1871–1874) and Scribner's Magazine. His illustrations began appearing in Harper's Weekly at an early age: before Abbey was twenty years old. He moved to New York City in 1871. His illustrations were strongly influenced by French and German black and white art.[5] He also illustrated several best-selling books, including Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens (1875), Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick (1882), and She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith (1887). Abbey also illustrated a four-volume set of The Comedies of Shakespeare for Harper & Brothers in 1896.

He moved to England in 1878, at the request of his employers, to gather material concerning Robert Herrick,[1] and he settled permanently there in 1883.[6] In 1883, he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours.[1] About this time, he was appraised critically by the American writer, S.G.W. Benjamin:

It must be taken into consideration that he is still very young; that he now for the first time visits the studios and galleries of Europe; that his advantages for a regular art education have been very moderate, and that he is practically self-educated. And then compare with these disadvantages the amount and the quality of the illustrations he has turned out, and we see represented in him genius of a high order, combining almost inexhaustible creativeness, clearness and vividness of conception, a versatile fancy, a poetic perception of beauty, a quaint, delicate humor, a wonderful grasp of whatever is weird and mysterious, and admirable chiaro-oscuro, drawing, and composition. When we note such a rare combination of qualities, we cease to be surprised at the cordial recognition awarded his genius by the best judges, both in London and Paris, even before he had left this country.[7]

He was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1898. In 1902 he was chosen to paint the coronation of King Edward VII. It was the official painting of the occasion and, hence, resides at Buckingham Palace. He did receive a knighthood,[6] although some say he refused it in 1907. Friendly with other expatriate American artists, he summered at Broadway, Worcestershire, England, where he painted and vacationed alongside John Singer Sargent at the home of Francis Davis Millet.

Portrait of Edwin Austin Abbey by John Singer Sargent. Yale University Art Gallery

He completed murals for the Boston Public Library in the 1890s. The frieze for the Library was titled "The Quest for the Holy Grail." It took Abbey eleven years to complete this series of murals in his England studio. In 1908–1909, Abbey painted a number of murals and other artworks for the rotunda of the new Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His works in that building include allegorical medallions representing Science, Art, Justice, and Religion in the Capitol Rotunda, large lunette murals underneath the Capitol dome, and a number of works in the House Chamber. Unfortunately, Abbey became ill with cancer in 1911 slowing his work. At the time, he was working on the "Reading of the Declaration of Independence Mural" which was later installed in the House Chamber. Abbey was so ill, that his studio assistant, Ernest Board completed the work with little supervision from Abbey. Later in 1911, Abbey died, leaving his commission for the State Capitol of Pennsylvania unfinished. John Singer Sargent, a friend and neighbor of Abbey, and studio assistant Board completed the "Reading of the Declaration of Independence Mural." Abbey's works were installed in the Rotunda and House Chamber. Two rooms from Abbey's commission were left undone, and the remainder of the commission was given to Violet Oakley. Oakley completed the works from start to finish using her own designs.

Abbey remained a prolific illustrator after settling in England. His attention to detail, including historical accuracy, influenced successive generations of illustrators.[5]

Abbey was elected to the National Academy of Design, in 1902,[1] and The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Marriage and legacy: The Abbey Awards

In 1890, Edwin married Gertrude Mead, the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant. Mrs Abbey encouraged her husband to secure more ambitious commissions, although with their marriage commencing when both were in their forties, the couple remained childless.[8] After her husband’s death, Gertrude was active in preserving her husband’s legacy, writing about his work and giving her substantial collection and archive to Yale. Edwin had been a keen supporter of the newly founded British School at Rome (BSR), so, in his memory, she donated £6000 to assist in building the artists’ studio block and, in 1926, founded the Incorporated Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Scholarships.[9] The scholarships were established to enable British and American painters to pursue their practice. Recipients of Abbey funding – Scholars and, more recently, Fellows – devote their scholarship to working in the studios at the BSR, where there has, ever since, been at least one Abbey-funded artist in residence. Previous award holders include Stephen Farthing, Chantal Joffe and Spartacus Chetwynd. The Abbey Fellowships (formerly ‘Awards’) were established in their present form in 1990, and the Abbey studios also host the BSR’s other fine art residencies, such as the Derek Hill Foundation Scholarship and the Sainsbury Scholarship in Painting and Drawing. A bust of Edwin Abbey, by Sir Thomas Brock, stands in the courtyard of the BSR.[10]

Works by Abbey

  • Who Is Sylvia? What Is She, That All the Swains Commend Her? (1896–99; reworked 1900), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


  1. ^ a b c d "Abbey, Edwin Austin". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A–Ak – Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2010. p. 12.  
  2. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 2
  3. ^ Saint-Guadens, Homer (May 1908). "Edwin Austin Abbey: The Career Of A Great American Artist".  
  4. ^ Leonard, John William; Marquis, Albert Nelson, eds. (1908), Who's who in America 5, Chicago: Marquis Who's Who, Incorporated, p. 2. 
  5. ^ a b Souter, Nick and Tessa (2012). The Illustration Handbook: A guide to the world's greatest illustrators. Oceana. p. 16.  
  6. ^ a b Swenson, Eleanor B. (1997). "Edwin Austin Abbey". In Johnston, Bernard. Collier's Encyclopedia. I A to Ameland (First ed.). New York, NY: P.F. Collier. p. 8. 
  7. ^ S.G.W. Benjamin, Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch, Harpers, 1880
  8. ^ "Oakley. L., ‘Abbey, Edwin Austin (1852–1911)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004". 
  9. ^ "Abbey Awards website". 
  10. ^ "Edwin Abbey by Thomas Brock on The Victorian Web website". 


  • Nancy Mendes. "Edwin Austin Abbey: A Capital Artist." Pennsylvania Heritage magazine 32, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 6–15.
  • Elisa Tamarkin. "The Chestnuts of Edwin Austin Abbey: History Painting and the Transference of Culture in Turn-of-the-Century America." Prospects 24 (1999): 417-448.
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

External links

  • Edwin Austin Abbey at American Art Gallery
  • Jim Vadeboncoeur's biography of Edwin Austin Abbey
  • Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee's E.A. Abbey Bio
  • Drawings by Edwin A. Abbey: illustrating the comedies of Shakespeare
  • Texts on Wikisource:
    • "Abbey, Edwin Austin".  
    • "Abbey, Edwin Austin".  
    • "Abbey, Edwin Austin".  
  • Edwin Austin Abbey letters, 1874–(ca. 1887) from the Archives of American Art
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