The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Edwin Austin Abbey, 1852-1911

Nationality: American
Date of Birth: 1852.04.01
Place of Birth: Philadelphia, PA
Date of Death: 1911.08.01
Place of Death: London


Edwin Austin Abbey was an American painter and illustrator, active in England.


Abbey studied from 1866 under the Philadelphia portrait and landscape painter Isaac L. Williams. In 1868 he attended evening classes in drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Christian Schussele. In the same year he also began to work as an illustrator for the Philadelphia publishers Van Ingen & Snyder, and in 1871 was taken on by Harper & Brothers in New York. In the 1870s he became well known for his elegant, and highly detailed watercolours and line drawings, which appeared as wood-engravings in a number of periodicals. He was particularly known for his illustrations to Shakespeare. His work showed a debt to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and to British illustration. In 1878 he moved to Britain.

In 1877 Abbey helped to found the Tile Club, which included among its members the architect Stanford White, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Winslow Homer. He became particularly close to the landscape painter and illustrator Alfred Parsons with whom he shared studios, exhibited, travelled and collaborated on several projects. From 1885 to 1889, he was one of the central figures in the artists’ colony at Broadway, along with Parsons, Frank Millet and John Singer Sargent.

Like JW, he was a member of The Arts Club from 1885 until 1910.

From 1889 Abbey became increasingly involved with mural schemes and oil painting. His preference lay with large, richly coloured paintings frequently of a Shakespearean or troubadour theme that reflected Abbey’s interest in the stage, for example, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (1896; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). Indeed, he designed costumes for a number of theatrical productions including John Hare’s Tosca (1889) and Sir Henry Irving’s Richard II (1898).

A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, he was elected an A.R.A. in 1896 and R.A. in 1898. In 1902 he was received a prestigious commission to paint the coronation ceremony of Edward VII (Buckingham Palace, London).

In 1888 it was suggested that JW should publish his 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' in Harper's Magazine. Abbey may well have had a hand in this (#02035, #02037, #10633). Abbey was good friends with JW and was often to be found with his wife amongst the visitors at 110 rue du Bac in Paris. Beatrix JW, who liked the couple, apparently wanted JW to make a drawing or lithograph of Abbey for his wife (#03186).

During the period from 1890 to 1901 Abbey was involved with the decoration of fifteen panels for the delivery room of McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library. The subject was the Quest for the Holy Grail. In 1892 JW was encouraged by Abbey, Sargent and Howells to submit designs for the decoration of a panel for the library's Bates Hall. He began to make studies for three panels, showing The Landing of Columbus, Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England, Study for Three Decorative Panels Representing 'The Landing of Columbus', 'Queen Isabel la Católica of Spain' and 'Queen Elizabeth of England' (YMSM 396).

In 1893 JW took Abbey up on his suggestion that he should borrow Blue and Silver: Trouville (YMSM 66) from J. J. Shannon for exhibition at World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893 (#03180). Abbey also attempted to borrow Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle (YMSM 137) from Glasgow but without any success (#00001). Abbey was a member of the Selection Committee of the Art Department of the Universal Exposition to be held in the summer of 1904 at St Louis. Early in 1903 JW was asked to become Chairman of the the Committee. He accepted, but did not live to fill the post. At JW's funeral on 23 July 1903, Abbey was one of his pallbearers, along with Théodore Duret, James Guthrie, John Lavery, G. Vanderbilt and C. L. Freer.


Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Lucas, E. V., Edwin Austin Abbey, Royal Academician: The Record of his Life and Work, 2 vols, London, 1921; Foster, K. A. and M. Quick (ed.), Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911), exhibition catalogue, Yale University Art Gallery, 1973; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; Oakley, L., Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey’s Shakespearean Subjects, New York, 1994; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 McConkey, Kenneth, Memory and Desire: Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, London, 2002; Simpson, Marc,'Edwin Austin Abbey', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 11 July 2002).