Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Born in Philadelphia, renowned artist Edwin Abbey created murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Edwin Austin Abbey was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1852. By the age of 14, he started to study art and shortly thereafter attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1870 Harper’s Weekly employed him as an illustrator. He was eventually commissioned to paint murals for the rotunda in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. These murals include The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, Reading of the Declaration of Independence, and Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. Abbey completed the murals in 1908 and died in 1911 in London, England.
Born Edwin Austin Abbey in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 1, 1852, to William Maxwell Abbey and Margery Ann Abbey, Abbey quickly became learned in art. At the early age of 14 he started to study under a fellow Philadelphian, Isaac L. Williams, as a portrait and landscape painter. He studied there for two years before getting an apprentice draftsman position, as per the wishes of his father, with the publishing firm Van Ingen & Snyder. At the same time he took night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, his first formal arts school; this also turned out to be his last. At the age of 19 (1870), Abbey had his first drawing published in Harper’s Weekly, titled The Puritans’ First Thanksgiving. Shortly thereafter he was hired by Harper & Brothers publishing company based out of New York City as an illustrator. By 1878, he had fallen into the graces of those in charge of Harper’s and was sent to England to research Robert Herrick’s poetry in order to compose illustrations for them. While there, he spent time in Stratford-on-Avon where he gained an appreciation for Shakespeare, something that would prove to be beneficial later in his career. For the next several years Abbey toured Europe studying different styles of painting. Throughout the rest of his career, Abbey would spend time traveling back and forth between his house in England and New York, where he had ties to the Harper’s Publishing Company. In 1883 he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour, an honor he would not have received without studying in Europe. In 1885, Abbey exhibited his first drawing at the Royal Academy in London. Two years later, Abbey started to illustrate the comedies of Shakespeare for Harper’s. In 1889 Abbey won a first class medal from the Paris Exhibition for his drawings from Old Songs. By 1892, Abbey started to travel, gathering research for what could be considered his most important works, The Quest for the Holy Grail Murals in Boston. In order to do this, he traveled all over Germany. Abbey was able to complete the first half of The Quest by 1895, the same year he was elected as an honorary member of the American Society of Architects and as an Associate of the Royal Water Colour Society. In the next few years, Abbey exhibited many of his works from his Shakespeare series in the Royal Academy. Also during this time, he was awarded the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Gold Medal of Honor for his distinguished career. In 1901 the second half of The Quest was completed and installed in the Boston Library. The following year Abbey was awarded an honorary doctorate degree (LLD) by The University of Pennsylvania, as well as being appointed the official court painter of the King’s coronation in Westminister Abbey by Edward VII. Abbey also accepted a commission to decorate the new capitol building for Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that same year. The decorations were displayed in London prior to being installed in the rotunda in Harrisburg in 1908. Three years later, in 1911, after several months of sickness, Abbey succumbed to illness in London. He died on August 1, 1911, at the age of 59. Abbey’s murals in the Capitol Building in Harrisburg show different aspects of life that are important to the state, including steelworkers, The Declaration of Independence, and many historical figures. These include historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and Daniel Boone. Abbey was first known for his illustrations, although he was a prominent water color painter as well. His most notable illustrations were for the Shakespearean plays that were included in Harper’s Weekly. He later used his illustrations as inspiration for his water color paintings such as May Day Morning. His illustrations for the Shakespearean comedies also poured over into his works with oil. Several of his paintings came from this, the most known being Hamlet, The Queen in Hamlet, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne.
The Quest for the Holy Grail (1901)
Dirge of the Three Queens (1895)
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne (1896)
Hamlet Play Scene (1897)
Near Easthampson (1878)
The Round Table of King Arthur (1891-1895)
The Oath of Knighthood (1891-1895)
The Queen in Hamlet
Anne Hutchinson on Trial (no exact date ? late 1800’s)
Appearing in the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, (all murals were hung in 1908 unless noted below)
The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania
Reading of the Declaration of Independence
Penn’s Treaty with the Indians
The Camp of the American Army at Valley Forge (1911, completed by apprentice after his death)
Passage of the Hours
Men at an Anvil
Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911). New Haven: Carl Purington Rollins Office of the Yale University Printing Service, 1973.
Lucas, E.V. Edwin Austin Abbey: Royal Academician. Vol. 1 & 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921.
Waring, Courtney M. “'The Quest for the Holy Grail’ Murals by Edwin Austin Abbey.” Diss. Penn State U, 1999. University Park.