Edwin Austin Abbey 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.
His most famous work, The Quest of the Holy Grail, resides in the Boston Public Library. Abbey was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1852. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 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. 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, and he settled permanently there in 1883. In 1883, he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours. 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, 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.
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.
Abbey was elected to the National Academy of Design, in 1902, and The American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1937 Yale University became the home for a sizable collection of Abbey's works, the result of a bequest from Abbey's widow.
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