Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects

The mortally wounded Mercutio. King Lear disowning a faithful daughter. Henry VIII in a fateful encounter at a masked ball. These powerful scenes from Shakespeare's best-known plays are dramatized in paintings and drawings by 19th-century artist Edwin Austin Abbey in a new exhibition at Columbia University.

An American expatriate in England, Abbey was admired on both sides of the Atlantic for his inventive and expressive portrayals of Shakespearean characters. He fulfilled the Victorian literati's enthusiasm for the bard with a prolific outpouring of illustrations, both in widely distributed periodicals and in public exhibitions, from the 1870's until his death in London in 1911.

The exhibition is the first major public show devoted entirely to Abbey's work in 20 years and the first dedicated exclusively to his Shakespearean subjects. Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects, from the Yale University Art Gallery and Other Collections, features 75 oil and watercolor paintings, pen-and-ink and pencil drawings, and notebook sketches of characters and scenes from As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, among other plays. Selected volumes from Harper's Monthly, where Abbey was an illustrator from 1871, are shown with the original drawings and paintings. Also on display are nine costume designs by Abbey for Henry Irving's planned 1898 production of Richard II, which have never been reproduced or exhibited.

Most works in the exhibition were lent by the Edwin Austin Abbey Memorial Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, the world's largest repository of Abbey's works. The exhibition will be shown at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., June 15-Sept. 20 and then at the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University Nov. 12-Jan. 31, 1995.

"Abbey's illustrations are technically dazzling and his oil paintings achieve great expressive power," says Lucy Oakley, exhibition curator and author of a 104-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition. "His spectacular, archaeologizing vision of Shakespeare's plays was widely acclaimed and influenced late Victorian stage productions."

The catalogue chronicles the history of Abbey's Shakespearean work and evaluates his achievement and vision of the plays. An introduction by Columbia Professor Allen Staley discusses Abbey in the wider context of English art.

Abbey was held in high regard by the English art establishment; he became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1898 and was chosen to record the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Yet he maintained his ties and affection for America even after he settled abroad, declining an offer of knighthood in 1907 in order to retain his U.s. citizenship. He completed murals for the Boston Public Library in the 1890's and for the Pennsylvania state capital in Harrisburg in the first decade of this century. He was elected to the National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A related exhibition in Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, also organized by Ms. Oakley, will feature illustrated books and prints from the library's collections. Titled All the Pictures Fairest Lin'd: Shakespeare Illustrated, 1709-1926, it will be on view April 13 through July 30 from 9 A.M. to 4:45 P.M. Monday through Friday. The library is located on the sixth floor of Butler Library.