Edwin Austin Abbey

(1852—1911) illustrator and painter

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference


Painter, illustrator, and printmaker. Known particularly for murals and book illustrations, he lived in England for most of his professional life and usually derived his subjects from British history or literature. His early, exacting realism, appearing mostly in historical genre scenes, gave way during the 1890s to more symbolic, decorative pageantry with links to art nouveau stylization. Abbey was born in Philadelphia and as a teenager took night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For the most part, he developed his professional skills while working as an illustrator in Philadelphia. In 1871, before he was twenty, he moved to New York to join the prestigious publishing enterprise Harper and Brothers. For nearly four decades, he produced drawings for the firm's illustrated books and magazines, while occasionally working for other publishers as well. Already smitten with British art and history, he departed in 1878 for England, ostensibly to verify details for assignments from Harper. However, he permanently made his home there and returned to the United States only for visits. Drawn to Pre-Raphaelitism, he honed a precise manner suitable to the antiquarian appeal of his art and developed formidable skill in presenting his subjects in large exhibition watercolors. Encouraged by his friend Francis Millet, he took up oil painting while working during the later 1880s in the Cotswold village of Broadway, Worcestershire, a burgeoning art colony. Around the same time, he embarked on his most ambitious commission from Harper, illustrating all of Shakespeare's plays. Extending over two decades, the heavily researched project encompassed books as well as magazine illustrations. It additionally inspired a number of oil paintings. In 1890 Abbey began work at the new Boston Public Library on his first significant mural project. Fifteen images illustrating the Quest for the Holy Grail (1890–1901) catapulted him into the first rank among American muralists and prompted commissions for numerous other decorative schemes. Two awards of 1902 confirmed Abbey's international standing. Although still an American citizen, he was tapped to create the official painting commemorating the coronation of Edward VII (Buckingham Palace, London, 1902–4). For his last important mural project, he was commissioned to embellish Pennsylvania's new state capitol, a vast undertaking completed under the supervision of his friend John Singer Sargent only after Abbey's death in London.

Subjects: Art.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.