Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Edwin Austin Abbey, Illustrator and Decorator

Undoubtedly the best-known American artist is Edwin Austin Abbey. He has done more than any other man to spread the fame of American art in Europe, He has proceeded, step by step, from his early youth, when he earned fifteen dollars a week as a "hack-artist," until he ranks as the greatest living decorative painter. The history of his life is an inspiration to students, as it furnishes striking evidence of what hard work and selfconfidence can accomplish in the field of art. Mr. Abbey advanced gradually from water-colors and pen-sketching to oil-painting, pastel and fine decorative work. Although he is a very prolific artist, he has maintained a surprising degree of excellence. His work breathes forth his personality, and shows the character of the man; there is confidence in every line. His taste is as fine, as his art and execution are perfect, and he has an extraordinary degree of comprehension and receptivity, due to his American blood.

Mr. Abbey has scholarly ability and intense application, but they would have availed him little if they had not seconded a talent of the most unusual order, and an individuality which is so personal that it may be said of him that he resembles no other living painter. It is only natural that he should have gained success in his chosen line of work, for his heart has been in it from his boyhood days. His earnest efforts have always been appreciated both in Europe and America. Only two seasons after he went to live in England, he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colors. In 1889, he received a first-class medal at the Paris Exposition, and, in 1896, he was honored by an associate membership in the Royal Academy. Two years later he was received into full membership, though John R. Sargent, his fellow-countryman, had to wait three years. Mr. Abbey was honored by King Edward VII with a commission to paint the coronation scene in Westminster Abbey, and by the Pennsylvania legislature with a commission to decorate the new state capitol at Harrisburg.


During a recent trip to England, I determined to visit Mr. Abbey, and obtain from him some message for his young countrymen who are beginning where he began thirty years ago. He has a beautiful country house known as Morgan Hall, in Gloucestershire, an attractive English county. In this house is the largest private studio in the whole country, built especially for the preparation of the Boston Library decorations, which Mr. Abbey recently completed. It measures twenty-five by fourteen yards, and has a high ceiling. In this room I observed a number of great easels, for Mr. Abbey usually has several pictures in progress at one time, but they occupied only a fraction of the space. It would be hard to imagine a studio more perfectly equipped for work. Great tapestries hung from heavy frames, not for ornamentation, but for study; carved oak doors and panels were resting against the walls, and scattered everywhere were casts of curious architecture. Priceless armor was displayed on every side, and along the walls were a number of canvases which had been used for studies, or paintings which had not been completed. There were chests filled with velvets, brocades and silks of various ancient periods. All these things are accessories of Mr. Abbey's craft and nothing more. He uses them in working out the details of his historical paintings. There were trestles full of elaborate studies and half-finished drawings standing about, and, tacked upon the walls were photographs of pictures of many interesting periods.

Mr. Abbey has also a vast collection of costumes. They are of all periods, and one might suppose himself in the stock room of some great theater. All these costumes help in depicting the dress worn at some great event which the artist desires to put upon canvas. Mr. Abbey is very accurate and careful in his work, and has never been challenged in any details of fact, of costume, of architecture, or of accessory. It must not be supposed that any of these costumes and decorations are copied in the paintings ; they are merely suggestions for invention.

Mr. Abbey's industry and energy are prodigious, so that I was quite prepared to find him at work when I visited his studio. Although the artist has lived abroad for many years, he is thoroughly American in his personality, and I might have been talking with him at a Philadelphia studio, instead of in the heart of England.


"There was nothing at all extraordinary about my boyhood," he said, in answer to a question. "I was very much like other boys, perhaps less promising than most. I remember that my parents complained because I was unable to fix my ambition upon any single profession, and they urged that I must have some definite aim in life. When I appeared unable to decide for myself, they undertook to decide for me and to formulate plans for my future. They suggested that I enter the ministry, but I had an instinct which told me that I was fitted for no such career. I told them then that art offered a greater attraction, and they were willing that I should begin studying. I entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and was delighted with my undertaking from the very beginning.

"Of course I was interested in all that pertained to art, and especially in drawing in black and white. I read all publications which printed work of this sort, and especially 'Punch' and 'The Graphic,' so that they had no inconsiderable share in my instruction in the use of a pencil. I used to observe the styles of the different artists and study the best in each.

"In 1871, my father suggested that it was time to decide whether or not I was to earn my livelihood as an artist, and I decided that it should be my life-work. I was fortunate in obtaining employment in the art department of Harper and Brothers, in New York City. I was only nineteen years old at the time, and was filled with enthusiasm over my work. I was anxious to learn as much as possible, and Harper's was an excellent place for me. I was given a great variety of work, and received every encouragement for earnest effort. Every improvement in my drawings was appreciated. Several boys who worked with me at that time have since become famous in the art world, notably Reinhart and Alexander. Even the boys who swept out the office were gaining an excellent start, for one of them has since become one of the most famous Franco-American painters, practicing in Paris."


"My first published drawing represented the demolition of the Vendome Column in Paris by the French Commune, and I shall never forget my pleasure at seeing it in 'Harper's Weekly.' It doesn't matter how old we get, we're sure to remember our first appearance. I received many congratulations for my effort and continued my work with enthusiasm.

"The young artists in Harper's offices were given all sorts of subjects to do, pictorial, illustrative and reportorial, and this variety has been of the utmost value to me. There was one sort of work, however, that I preferred above all others. When only a lad I fell in love with the classic literature of England ; Goldsmith was always one of my favorite authors, and whenever I had spare time I devoted it to illustrating some of the stories that I had read. I was especially fond of English history, so you can imagine my delight when it was decided that I was to illustrate the works of Herrick for 'Harper's Monthly,' with a view to ultimate publication in book form.

"It was then that I first came to England. I thought it advisable to live for a time in the English country, and I settled for two years in one of the most picturesque districts of Worcestershire. I need not tell you that I enjoyed that visit, and, when I returned to America, in 1880, it was only to remain eight months and to arrange my affairs so that I could return here. Although I had lost none of my regard for the land of my birth, I felt that, if I was to draw pictures from English history, England was the place for me to live in, so here I have been ever since, save for occasional journeys to America and the Continent."

Mr. Abbey breathed a sigh of relief as he finished the narrative of his early days. "But this doesn't bring you up to date," I said, "and the most interesting story is about what you've done since." But the artist shook his head. "It's simply a record of steady work," he said; "you already know about the chief paintings I have done in late years."

"Of course," I said, "you are doing nothing now but painting in oils ?"

"That's all," replied Mr. Abbey, "and my contracts will prevent me from doing any other kind of work in the near future. I didn't begin painting in oils until I had been working many years; the 'Mayday Morn,' my first exhibit, was not shown until 1890. It seems quite the usual thing for artists to take up oils after they are known chiefly by black and white or water colors."


"It is well known that you spend much time in preparing the subjects of your paintings," I said, "but there aren't many artists who worry about the technical details as you do."

"I won't say that I worry about them," replied Mr. Abbey. "An artist should study for his profession just as a man should prepare for the law or medicine, and should never consider that natural ability is all that he requires for success. He should have a knowledge of architecture and sculpture as well as of the principles of drawing; in short, he should carefully learn what may be called 'the grammar of his profession.'

"When I am to paint a subject which is mythological, I am at pains to absorb the atmosphere of the period, and to learn something of the geography in which the legendary figures moved. I visit the scene of the story, obtain every picture which will give me a knowledge of the dress of the period, and I am not satisfied until I have exhausted every possible source of information. It is well known that Sir Frederick Leighton constantly refreshed his mind and memory by visiting the classic scenes of his paintings.

"Some artists have been known to go so far as to paint a scene as an artist living in the period of the story would have painted it. I regard this as rather extreme. It is well to have the details perfect, but modern art has some advantage of technique and color which are not to be despised. I would not have you believe that technical efficiency is the greatest essential in an artist's qualifications, only it is a valuable asset when added to natural ability and earnestness of purpose."


Mr. Abbey has invariably practiced what he advises other artists to do. Before beginning the decorative paintings for the delivery room of the Boston Library, he spent many months traveling in Italy, collecting information which might aid him in the paintings of the Holy Grail. But in the end he decided that the scene should not be in Italy at all, and his effort went for nothing, as far as that particular series was concerned. He spent four years of unsurpassable toil, study and application in completing the first five of the pictures, and when they were done the public was not slow to appreciate the effort he had evidently put forth. Mr. Abbey could not have chosen a subject more worthy of his talent. He has confidence in his ideas of what is best in art, is full of mediaeval feeling, and is endowed, —in spite of his sunny, hopeful temperament, —with an appreciation of the tragedy underlying so much of human life. In historical pictures, he considers no toil too great to make sure of accuracy, and his university training has been of the greatest assistance to him in his work.

"No artist can be too well educated," he said, during my conversation with him; "every bit of information is sure to be of use to him sooner or later, in one painting or another.

"I am glad," he said, "if I can encourage anyone to hard work, for surely that is the chief aid to success in any career. The young person who believes that an artist's life is a bed of roses, and that he needs only to ply the brush a few hours each day, is mistaken. He must be scholarly by nature, must have a wide and minute acquaintance with art, and must never consider that he has learned it all if he hopes for lasting fame. I might add that he must also have earnest convictions regarding his work, and the courage to carry them out. Given these qualifications, combined with talent, of course, any person should succeed as well in the field of art as in any other profession, providing he is willing to give a reasonable time to study and preparation. Although the world may call him master, the true artist will never regard himself as other than a student."

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