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For those familiar with his majestic works of art-particularly his grand public murals – it seems improbable that Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) had little formal training. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for just one semester, where fellow students observed he rarely finished a drawing as assigned, preferring instead to produce sketches of his own design. Abbey was the first to admit that he was not a good academic student, yet he became one of the world’s most admired and respected artists. His magnificent murals and paintings adorn buildings and galleries across the United States, including the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, the Boston Public Library, and the Yale University Art Gallery, as well as Buckingham Palace in London.

Visitors to the State Capitol Building have been enjoying Abbey’s expansive, awe-inspiring murals for more than ninety years. The moment they enter the Capitol and peer up into the rotun­da rising high above the grand marble staircase, visitors are struck by the brilliant colors, the dramatic subjects, and the artist’s precision. Abbey’s works, set in the collar of the rotunda’s dome like fine jewels, include four lunettes, semi-circular murals, each measuring twenty-two feet high by thirty-eight feet wide, and four medallion-like pendentives, circular hanging can­vases each fourteen feet in diameter. They instantly introduce the uniniti­ated to the sheer splendor of Abbey’s work and continue to delight those who regularly encounter his genius.

Abbey also created the murals for the walls and ceiling in the House of Representatives and chose the color schemes for the House and Senate chambers to complement the decor­ative wainscot and scroll work adorn­ing the Capitol’s ceilings and walls. It had been originally planned that Abbey would design and paint murals for the Senate and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court chambers, but he died before he could complete his task. His prolific life’s work, nevertheless, had already assured the Pennsylvania native international acclaim and a place among America’s greatest artists.

He was born in Philadelphia on April 1, 1852, the eldest of three chil­dren of William and Margery Ann (Ki­ple) Abbey. His father wanted him to become a doctor, lawyer, or business­man, but, Abbey himself admitted, “I was a disappointment as a schoolboy.” He grew into a handsome man, with thick wavy hair and deep brown eyes. He was sociable, well-mannered, kind and thoughtful, and possessed a sense of humor and a knack for practical joking. His warmth and intelligence at­tracted many people to him. His studio in New York City became popular with artists whom he had befriended. When they dropped in to visit, Abbey often put them to work modeling for him. Abbey always worked from life, dedicated to accuracy in his paintings, a trait imparted by Christian Schussele (1824-1879), the director of the Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts dur­ing Abbey’s brief tenure as a student.

Schussele’s emphasis on the human figure and historical painting greatly influenced Abbey’s emerging style. “He taught the importance of truth, of going to nature for all things,” Abbey commented on Schussele’s philosophy, “even to the accessory data necessary to make a complete expression of an idea, holding that it was only by following these lines that the picture could be made convincing.” Schussele’s influence may have led to Abbey’s life-long practice of employing only appropriate models, accurate costumes, and detailed settings for his illustrations. His meticulous attention to such detail distinguished his work and kept him teetering on the edge of financial disaster, with a few excep­tions, throughout his career.

Abbey launched his career as an illustrator in 1871 at the age of eighteen when he was hired by Harper’s Weekly. The popular magazine at the time was under the art direction of noted lithographer Charles H. Parsons (1821-1910). Art historians credit Par­sons with nurturing a group of young illustrators known now as the stars of “The Golden Age of Illustration,” that included Pennsylvanians Maxfield Parrish and Newell Convers Wyeth. Parsons remained an influential friend and mentor to Abbey and, under his guidance and that of the team of Harp­er’s illustrators – described as “journal­ists with a pencil” – Abbey matured and his work grew more sophisticated.

Association with a group of artists that called themselves The Tile Club, co-founded by Abbey, further nurtured his growth as an artist. The Tile Club convened each Wednesday evening at the studio of one of its members. At the beginning, influenced by William Morris (1834-1896) and the Arts and Crafts movement that Morris promulgated in England, they each painted a ceramic tile at their meetings. Their interest in painting tiles faded quickly, but their ideas, lively discussions, exchange of technical information, and their love of art, music, and literature, kept them together for ten years. Through Abbey’s connection with The Tile Club, he worked with and learned from the best artists in New York. Tile Club members included American luminaries Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, Frederick Dielman, Napoleon Sarony, John Henry Twacht­man, and a number of internation­ally acclaimed artists. Painters work­ing in nearby studio space included Louis Comfort Tiffany, Samuel F.B Morse, and Eastman Johnson.

While working for Harper and Brothers Publishing, Abbey illustrated a series of articles about life in Great Britain. His early work was critiqued as “lacking authenticity,” and, at Parson’s urging, the publisher arranged a trip to England for Abbey so that he might study English life, history, and landscapes. He was assigned to visit sites which included Stratford-on-Avon,and to send illustrations back to New York for publication. Abbey also used this trip to illustrate another Harper and Brothers publication, Selections from tile Poetry of Robert Herrick (1882).

What Abbey could not have known when he arrived at Liverpool,on December 17, 1878, at the age of twenty­-six, was, from that day on, England was to permanently become his home. Everything about England inspired Abbey and directed the development of his style-from the “tidiness” of the small towns and villages to the ancient structures lining the streets. The day after he arrived, he went directly to Stratford­-on-Avon, eager to begin sketching. “These inns remind me strongly of the old Philadelphia taverns on 2nd Street,” he wrote to Parsons. The fol­lowing year, Abbey set up residence in London to continue his illustrations.

As he had in New York, he quickly became friendly with like-minded artistic individuals, including artists George Henry Boughton and James McNeil Whistler, poet Robert Brown­ing, and composer Johannes Brahms. By 1885, Abbey had settled in an enclave in Worcestershire, known as the Broadway Colony, where his neighbors included artists, writers, poets, composers, and creative types. One neighbor, artist John Singer Sargent, frequently visited the Abbey residence, often working in the studio alongside Abbey. Abbey had brought Sargent to the colony in the Cotswolds in 1885 to look after him after Sargent had gashed his head a second time while diving into a swimming pool.

In addition to his work for Harper, Abbey illustrated books by English authors, including William Black’s ro­mance novel, Judith Shakespeare (1884), the 1885 reprint of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 theatrical comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, and an 1888 collection of Eng­lish ballads titled Old Songs, illustrated with Alfred Parsons. In Boughton’s Sketching Rambles in Holland (1885), Abbey shared illustration credits with the author. His experiences enabled him to describe the life and chal­lenges of an illustrator of the day.

I don’t believe that authors, as a rule, see very clearly their characters – that is, pictorially. I had to make a couple of drawings once for a story, and, as the story was rather nebulous, I called upon the authoress, hoping thus to get some inkling as to the appearance of the characters, but she had 110 clear idea in her head as to what they looked like, or would have been likely to wear, or anything at all about them that was of service to me. I supposed she would say, of course, when I showed her one draw­ing, that they were “not like that”, but I was disappointed even there.

Harper asked Abbey to produce 132 drawings for each of William Shakespeare’s fourteen comedies, at $125 per page. In preparing to render the illustrations, Abbey traveled to Italy to visit Verona, Venice, Padua, and Tuscany. He acquired copies of the complete works of Shakespeare in which he made voluminous notes. He had dresses and casts of weapons made, and commissioned period furniture from the property master at London’s Lyceum Theatre. Because he owned such an extensive costume and prop collection, theater property managers frequently consulted him at his studio. He lamented at times that the work would bankrupt him before be made a single drawing.

“Some of the plays would be very easy to get up, but some of them would be expensive,” Abbey wrote to Parsons in 1888. ‘As You Like It, for instance, would cost me for clothes quite 60 pounds, and most of the others (with the exception of the classic ones) more, or less. l have just laid out nearly 40 pounds in books on costumes and architecture.”

In 1888, Abbey met Mary Gertrude Mead (1851-1931), an English-born daughter of American parents, who was visiting friends at Russell House in Broadway, the same building where Abbey was leasing. Mead and Abbey married two years later and purchased a dwelling, Morgan Hall, near Fairford, Gloucestershire. Mary Gertrude Abbey encouraged her husband to take up oils, which led to a commission for the Boston Public Library. Philadelphia architect Joseph M. Huston (1866-1940), while vacationing in Atlan­tic City, read published reports about Abbey’s work in Boston and learned the artist would be in Philadelphia in Febru­ary 1902. Huston had been selected to design Penn­sylvania’s new State Capi­tol Building in Harrisburg to replace the building leveled by fire in 1897.

Abbey traveled to Philadelphia to accept an honorary doctorate of laws degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Huston invited him to meet at the tony Union League, where he proposed the Capitol mural project to Abbey. Having recently completed the expansive and time-consuming commission for the Boston Public Library – the Holy Grail murals – Ab­bey worried about his physical ability to take on the work, a monumental challenge at the very least. Neverthe­less, the proposition intrigued him and he accompanied Huston to his office to examine architectural sketches of the new capitol. The artist returned to England – sketches in hand – and Huston commenced the arduous task of convincing the Capitol Building Commission that Abbey was the right artist for the job. It took a full year to finalize the agreement, mostly because of political haggling and legal issues. During that time, Abbey began sketch­ing designs for Harrisburg’s murals. Huston sailed to London four times between 1903 and 1906 to review Abbey’s progress and to consult with the artist on the overall color schemes in the Capitol public rooms and spaces. Huston also requested that Abbey pro­vide decorative drawings for the bas­-relief plaster ceiling ornamentation in both the House and Senate chambers.

The question of his physical health was pushed aside by Abbey. In a letter to his brother William in December 1902, although never posted, Abbey characterized the work of “the great artists” of his day.

I have had a laborious year of it – and feel the fag of it rather. I am more and more convinced that great physical strength is absolutely essential to any success in art. Those who get anywhere at all – who don’t fall by the way – I have noticed that this gift is theirs. Hard and incessant study, combined with a par­ticularly nerve-trying sort of labour – unless one is very strong one can’t stand it. I nm not speaking of idlers – men who play at it – but workers, like Sargent, for instance, who has had to ease up. I’ve met nearly all the great artists of my time and many of the lesser ones – but the big ones are always strong men. Women who stick at it always become wrecks – I have never known it otherwise. In other arts one can sit comfortably and dictate – or, as in music, interpret what others, who don’t execute, have written, or act what others contrive. At this game you are using every faculty you have at once – mind and nerves and body.

By the time he signed the contract the scope of work had been greatly re­duced because the State Capitol project was running well over budget. Abbey originally had planned to decorate the dome with depictions of Pennsyl­vania’s various religious sects, and to represent the Commonwealth’s powerful industries – steel, coal, oil, shipbuilding – along with Pennsylvania’s spirit of religious liberty in the House of Representatives or the Senate cham­bers. However, he became convinced that budgetary restraints limited his commission to painting only the dome of the rotunda, and chose to represent the industries there. State officials eventually appropriated more money for the project which gave Abbey more work, but by then he had completed too much of the art specifically for the dome to return to his original plans.

His working methods for the Har­risburg murals, described by one of his assistants, began with a pencil drawing in a sketch book, or with a small oil study. These pieces would go through revisions and refining. Sometimes small groups of mannequins were set up and rearranged until the appropri­ate action was achieved. Abbey then did charcoal studies of each figure from a live model. These studies were then squared-up (an enlargement tech­nique) onto the mural canvas. He also used slides from photographs taken of his charcoal studies, which were projected onto the canvas and traced. Again, he moved the figures around until he was satisfied with the compo­sition. The next step was to paint the entire composition in a monochro­matic color of warm grey and, finally, in color. Abbey always used the studies he had executed and live models.

“I have seen him sometimes at work practically surrounded, with canvas in front,” one of his assistants said about Abbey’s process, “model posing on one side in costume, close by the lay figure similarly posed and in similar costume, and pinned up in all directions on boards and ea­sels, numbers of studies for the same figure. Due to shortsightedness, he always worked close to his model.”

As he worked on the murals for the House chamber, Abbey negotiated with the Capitol Building Commis­sion about the choice of subject and layout of the murals. The original plans required several rows of smaller paintings, separated by wide mould­ings. Abbey wrote to the commission that he was unwilling to complete a series of easel paintings and suggested he be allowed to produce three large murals to fill the space at no additional cost. Huston agreed with Abbey and directed the contractor to remove the original architrave de­signed for small paintings from the south wall of the House chamber.

After Governor Samuel W. Penny­packer assumed office in 1903, he de­manded that the murals reflect histori­cal subjects. Abbey insisted on exerting artistic judgment to select specific subjects depicted and rejected any re­quest by the commission that allegori­cal figures be left out of his paintings.

The three pieces on the huge wall behind the Speaker of the House’s rostrum axe titled Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, measuring twelve by twenty­-four feet, The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, thirty-five by thirty-five feet, and The Reading of the Declaration of Inde­pendence, twelve by twenty-four feet. In addition to these murals, Abbey painted a circular ceiling piece, The Hours, measuring twenty-four feet in diameter, on a large wheel in his studio in England. The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, the center mural of the House chamber, features twenty-nine figures of history. It is a record of the individu­als who helped forge the Commonwealth – church leaders, statesmen, pioneers, inventors, scientists, writers, business leaders, and soldiers, among them William Penn, Benjamin Frank­lin, Thomas McKean, Daniel Boone, Caspar Wistar, Stephen Girard, and Benjamin Rush. Abbey created a clas­sical theater-in-the-round, with steps and columns, and placed the figures in an elevated and united ennoblement.

Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and The Reading of the Declaration of Independence present two significant moments in Pennsylvania history. The Reading of the Declaration was unfin­ished at the time of Abbey’s death. In his quest for historical accuracy, Abbey was researching the location of the Rittenhouse Observatory, the building where historians conjecture the public reading took place on July 8, 1776, but no longer existed, for its exact placement in the painting. This small area of the painting was later completed after Abbey’s death by his assistant, Ernest Board, under the supervision of John Singer Sargent.

Abbey showed Penn’s Treaty and The Camp of the American Army at Val­ley Forge, February, 1778 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1910. Although Valley Forge was originally installed in the Senate chamber, the mural, measuring twelve and one half by six feet, was moved to the rear wall of the House of Represen­tatives. The mural depicts George Washington’s army during the harsh winter of 1778 after the September 1777 defeats at Brandywine and at Germantown. Many of Abbey’s con­temporaries considered Valley Forge to have been his masterpiece. Abbey had planned The Battle of Gettysburg to accompany Valley Forge, but died before be was able to even begin it.

The last few months of Abbey’s life Ln 1911 were busy. He was con­stantly approached to give lectures, paint murals, exhibit his work, and give his opinions on matters concern­ing artists and the business of art. He had a long list of projects to pursue, and was continuing to work on the murals for Harrisburg. He had come to love the Harrisburg project so much that he often said he would finish the project with or without remunera­tion. Despite his enthusiasm and good spirits, Abbey’s health was declining. His family and physicians urged him to seek treatment, but he refused, replying that he had too much to do. With the encouragement of his wife and William White, an eminent American surgeon and Abbey’s good friend, the artist consented to an exploratory operation, performed on June 25, 1911. The surgeons discov­ered Abbey had advanced cancer that affected his liver. They expected Abbey to live only a few more weeks.

Abbey was not told about his condi­tion, and he kept working as much as he was able. He was thinking about moving to a new home, making plans for future work, ordering paint, and corresponding with friends. He spent the final days of his life in his bed, which had been moved to his studio. He was surrounded by his paintings, including Valley Forge and The Reading of the Declaration of Independence, but he would never see his finished work installed in Pennsylvania’s Capitol. His mind was clear until two days before his death, on Tuesday, August l, 1911.

Before the Harrisburg canvasses were packed for shipping to the United States, Mary Gertrude Abbey arranged a private exhibition for Abbey’s fellow artists and friends in England. Among the visitors was King Edward VII of England who had said earlier that he was “loathe to see the work leave the country.” On October 19, Abbey’s wid­ow sailed with the murals to America, to oversee their installation. She took along one of Abbey’s assistants, W.G. Simmonds, to touch up areas of the murals that might suffer damage dur­ing the transatlantic voyage, especially during um:rating or installation.

Only a single mural had been completed for the Senate and not one of the paintings for the Supreme Court had begun. Abbey had made two series of designs for the Senate, but, as was the case with the House of Representatives, the room plans changed, necessitating a change in his designs. The remaining mural commis­sions were given to Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley (1874-1961). Abbey had completed at least one study for the Supreme Court decoration, but Huston and Oakley had not seen it. Abbey’s widow was very careful about pro­tecting the integrity of her husband’s designs, and was reluctant to have any artist not intimately familiar with his working methods carry out his ideas. When Oakley wrote to her asking if Abbey had noted any ideas about how to proceed with the Supreme Court murals, she starkly replied, “Nothing.”

During the winter of 1911-1912, shortly after Abbey’s death, a public memorial exhibition of his work was mounted by the Royal Academy of Art. John Singer Sargent selected 322 of Abbey’s paintings and sketches – only a small portion of his life’s work – for the event, although he selected only three of the Har­risburg designs and none of the Boston Library designs. On March 13, 1917, England’s Princess Louise (1849-1919) unveiled a tablet honoring the American artist in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was attend­ed by the United States ambassador to the Court of Saint James, Walter Hines Page. “To the Memory of Edwin Austin Abbey, Royal Academi­cian,” the memo­rial reads in part, “beloved both in the Country of his birth and in that of his Adoption, this tablet is erected by his Friends and his Admirers.”

In some ways, Abbey’s work was more respected among his peers in England where he was elected Royal Academician in 1898 by the Royal Academy of Art. Like many Romantic period artists, illustrators, and paint­ers of history, Abbey’s work fell out of favor in America with the coming of the modern age, although Yale Uni­versity has one of the largest collec­tions of Abbey’s works in the world. His theatrical settings that place his art subjects in idealistic, symbolic set­tings may seem to clash with twenti­eth-century modern American art.

Although the Abbeys had no direct heirs to serve as guardians of the artist’s work, Mary Gertrude Abbey as­sumed the responsibility of protecting and perpetuating her late husband’s legacy, including bequests she es­tablished in cities such as New York, London, Paris, and Rome. Even today, art students benefit from perpetual endowments, such as the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Fund at the National Academy of Design in New York. Ab­bey’s unique contribution to art may include his masterful grasp of history and literature and appreciation for clas­sic symbolism. As visitors to the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg during its 2006 centennial discover Abbey’s work, perhaps they will see more than idealized portrayals of the artist’s native Commonwealth. The murals may well inspire a renewed interest in the art of Edwin Austin Abbey.

 

For Further Reading

Caffin, Charles H. Handbook of the New Capitol of Pennsylva­nia. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Capi­tol Preservation Committee, 1999.

Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Herrick, Robert. Selections from the Poetry of Robert Herrick: With Il­lustrations by Edwin A. Abbey. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882.

Lucas, Edward Verrall. Edwin Aus­tin Abbey, Royal Academician: The Record of His Life and Work. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921.

Oakley, Lucy. Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey’s Shake­spearean Subjects. New York: Miriam and Ira D.Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, 1994.

Pisano, Ronald G. The Tile Club and the Aesthetic Movement in America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Wagner, Margaret E. Maxfield Parrish and the Illustrators of the Golden Age. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2000.

Yale University Art Gallery. Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911): An Exhibition Organized by the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Galfery, 1974.

 

The editor thanks Ruthann Hubbert­ Kemper, executive director, and the staff of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee (CPC) for their invaluable assistance in providing images and primary references for this article.

 

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Nancy Mendes grew up on the southeast coast of Massachusetts, near New Bedford. Educated in fine art at the University of Massachusetts and in art education at the University of Delaware, the author earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree from Marywood University in Scranton. She currently works as an artist/illustrator in the Bureau of State Parks, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Her MFA thesis was written about Edwin Austin Abbey and Violet Oakley and their murals in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. Her particular interest is in the working methods of the artists and how their backgrounds influenced conceptual style and working methods.