More matter and less art, Polonius complains to Hamlet, who is feigning madness to catch the King. As the bumbling, yet ironically wise counselor suggests, true art is made of content, not artifice. It is a precept with which the renowned illustrator and muralist Philadelphia-born painter, Edwin Austin Abbey would surely have agreed. The thirty brilliantly intense and psychologically acute paintings and drawings illustrating the plays of Shakespeare which are on display at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, are part of a traveling exhibition on loan from the Yale University Library to honor the 450th birthday of the playwright. Dazzling examples from this golden age of illustration in British and American art, these works from the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras not only eloquently bring to life the poetry of the Bard, but they speak to the sensibility of an art which embraced the new century by looking back with longing at the romance of the past.
Born in 1852, Abbey studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and began his career as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and Scribner’s Magazine. His early success took him to England in 1878, were within two decades in London and Paris, he was made a member of the Royal Academy. In the ensuing years he painted Edward VII’s official coronation portrait, as well as the monumental series of murals for the Boston Public Library, The Quest of the Holy Grail, and murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. He succumbed to cancer in 1911, but his wife Gertrude Mead, devoted herself to preserving his legacy, writing about her husband’s work, donating his entire collection to Yale, and creating scholarships for young artists in his name.
Abbey’s career was indebted to the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement of William Hunt Morris, James Whistler, and others, as well as bearing ties to the great American illustrators of the early 20th century, N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell Kent. His work also calls to mind the great German muralist, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, whose Nibelungenlied paintings in Munich serve as prototypes for Abbey’s Grail series. As the German artist drew upon the great Nordic medieval myths, Abbey here draws his inspiration from England’s greatest poet, whose stories he elevates to the level of myth and whose words he brings vibrantly to life with the skill of a man of the theatre. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, he seeks to return to late medieval and Renaissance painterly values at the same time that he endows the characters with a pregnant psychology. To look into the eyes of one of Abbey’s figures is to see into the psyche and spirit of that person. Of interest, too, is Abbey’s handling of different media from oil to watercolor, gouache, pastel, and pen and ink. In all cases he endows his subjects with a remarkably sculptural quality that speaks to his classical training, and he is a master of light and shade, whether in color or black and white.
The exhibition, which also marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of the local Rockland Shakespeare Society, is organized by play and does an admirable job in coordinating images and text. It begins with an arresting 1905 two-character painting from Henry IV, Part I of the King and Prince Harry (Thou shalt have charge and sovereign trust herein) in which Abbey uses his signature rich colors of red and yellow for the figures’ robes against a medieval stylized patterning of fleur de lis as a background tapestry. But, as throughout the exhibition, it is the faces to which the viewer is drawn. The two men have their heads inclined together in a gesture of filial affection, and the tenderness is apparent in the gesture and the veiled eyes.
A trio of illustrations for Macbeth from 1903 reveals Abbey’s dexterity with three different media. The painting of Lady Macbeth (Oh, infirm of purpose, give me the daggers) poses a fierce Lady robed in red, her eyes blazing, gesturing at her subdued husband. In a gouache and graphite drawing of the banquet scene, the grays, white, and shadows are modeled with three-dimensional surety, while the drama is captured in the complexity of the composition and the genre detail such as the frightened dogs in the foreground. The last pen and ink drawing of the First Apparition (Beware MacDuff) testifies to Abbey’s skill as a draughtsman. He employs various cross-hatched textures to create solid and insubstantial, and his fearless use of white space gives a remarkable sense of the disembodied apparition. All the terror of the scene is captured in Macbeth’s wild eyes.
The Julius Caesar pair of one pen and ink and one oil reveal Abbey’s classical comprehension of figure drawing. Beware the Ides of March in pen and ink stresses the sculptural qualities of the figures, while the oil of Brutus in his tent confronted by Caesar’s ghost (Art thou some god, angel or devil?) is a dramatic encounter between a royally red robed Brutus and the hollow-eyed, grey-faced ghost – a stark spectre from Brutus’ guilt-stricken psyche.
Abbey demonstrates his skill at individualizing his sitters in his pen and ink drawing of Othello and Iago in which the smolderingly handsome Moor is clearly tormented by Iago’s insinuations. The accompanying oil painting of Iago in the customary red robes with handsomely chiseled features and lowered eyes with veiled eyelids, fingering a gold necklace gives a complete mini-portrait in expression and gesture. One can palpably feel Iago’s scheming, sense his motivations of profit and advancement, and understand how completely in control he is.
The trio of illustrations from Romeo and Juliet exudes a gripping youth and passion. “The Death of Mercutio” in watercolor and gouache has a kineticism of color and composition. Mercutio lies in a pool of blood, Romeo kneeling over him with Tybalt coldly surveying the scene. In the black and white gouache of Juliet with the dagger in hand, Romeo dead at her feet, the heroine is modeled as a Roman sculpture with a blazingly intense Pre-Raphaelite head with cascading hair and saucer-like eyes full of sadness and terrible resolve. The tomb scene in pen and ink depicts Friar Laurence discovering the dead couple. Once again the white page is used to special effect to create the light of the Friar’s lantern which flickers in the gloom and illuminates Juliet’s face.
The images from Henry IV Part II are unique in the exhibit in their depiction of some of Shakespeare's “rude” fellows and his comic creation, Falstaff. In black and white chalk, Abbey gives us a portrait of the four tradesmen, their names above their heads like a medieval illumination – each with wonderfully characterized faces. “Falstaff and His Page” from Merry Wives of Windsor is a fully realized oil which depicts Sir John’s florid, puffy cheeks, red robes, and touches of motley suggesting his jester-like qualities, but the subtle look in his eyes hints that he is hatching plans. The chalk drawing of Joan of Arc from Henry IV Part I is once again in the Pre-Raphaelite mode. Though black and white, the viewer can feel the heat of the flames behind the Maid and imagine her wildly flowing hair which mirrors the curves of her robes and armor to be red.
Several more subdued scenes from Henry VI and Henry VIII form a transition to Abbey’s illustrations from several comedies, the most notable among these his finely limned pen and ink drawing of Titania and Bottom as the ass from Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this 1893 illustration, the artist’s sense of line is finer and more detailed than in later years. The composition is dominated by huge gossamer wings, whose airiness is contrasted with the modeled head of the ass, with its sweet melancholy eyes beseeching the fairy queen.
As befitting the play, the drawings and studies for Hamlet are among the most psychologically probing in the exhibition. The head of a Celtic woman with eyes closed in sibylline fashion is haunting as is the pastel study of Ophelia - both for the play scene. The hapless girl is portrayed with strawberry blond hair, and a gentle expression of confusion and sorrow. Similarly, Hamlet, himself, is given a sensitive, noble profile and sports long hair crowned with a circlet. These exercises in portraiture give way to a genre scene of Claudius at prayer with Hamlet outside the door, pondering whether he should strike, but even here, where there is a story to be told, the most arresting feature of the watercolor-graphite illustration is the emotional subtext. Claudius, head in hands, eyes covered, is clearly the very image of guilt.
Just as the absence of Claudius’ eyes in that picture speaks volumes, the blazing presence of Malvolio’s in the dungeon scene from Twelfth Night, transfix the viewer. Abbey’s powerful use of shading in this black-white-gray gouache drawing creates the tangible gloom of the prison, while Malvolio’s white-flecked eyes telegraph their wildness.
This intensity stands in expressive counterpoint to a large oil of “Goneril and Regan” from King Lear, the former in red-flowered robes, the later in black accented by a red shawl. The women’s faces reflect their sisterhood, just as their regal, haughty expressions are worn as masks concealing their jealousy and greed. This 1902 portrait brings the exhibition full circle, as its painterly values mirror those of the Henry IV oil in use of color, pattern, and composition.
But for all the beauty of technique and narrative skill in each of these illustrations, what makes Edwin Austin Abbey’s treatments of Shakespeare so memorable is their inner fire. Much of this is contained in the eyes of the artist’s subjects, which become the proverbial “windows of the soul.” As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 24:
Taking his cue from the Bard, Abbey translated this aesthetic precept into his illustration. Using his heart as well as his eyes, he saw into the life of his protagonists, and he translated their emotion, passion, and poetry into visual dramas.