Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Richard III by E. A. Abbey

The Guardian announced yesterday that the bones found underneath a parking lot in Leicester, do indeed belong to Richard III, England's last Plantagenet king, who was killed in 1485 in the battle of Bosworth. The clues included DNA tests, the variety of injuries, and the distinctive deformed spine.

Richard III was the subject of a Shakespeare play, a famous scene of which was painted by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911).

The painting is in the collection of the Yale Art Gallery, which says the painting "shows the villainous, humpbacked Richard proposing to Lady Anne, Henry VI's widowed daughter-in-law, as she walks in the late king's funeral procession. Swathed in a sheer black veil and wearing a gown stiff with heraldic embroidery, she is accompanied by Richard's two young nephews and black-cloaked, halberd-bearing honor guards, their halberds reversed as a sign of mourning."

Abbey's preliminary studies show how the composition took shape. This early oil study concentrates on the protagonists, with Lady Anne leaning away from Richard's dastardly gesture as he offers the ring. 

Another oil sketch resolves the finery of their costumes, and the dark processional figures begin to emerge from the background. 

Here's a later sketch, which Abbey would have done from his imagination, while doing studies of models taking the poses. Abbey's friend John Singer Sargent sent over a model that he thought would be perfect for the Lady Anne.

Between research, sketches, and gathering props and costumes, not to mention the final painting, Abbey took months to complete the work. At one point he had painted all the halberds facing upward until he realized that they should facing downward in mourning. He completely repainted the Lady Anne's costume when he realized he got the heraldry wrong the first time out.

The Yale museum describes the scene further: "Shortly before the moment depicted, Anne has heaped curses on Richard for having brutally stabbed to death both her father-in-law and her husband, Edward, Prince of Wales. Undaunted, the fawning Richard praises her extravagantly, asserting that he killed them in order to get near her, and offers to let her kill him, or to kill himself with the unsheathed sword that he holds up. But instead of plunging it into his breast, as she asks, he offers her a wedding ring. She will later succumb to his flattery and declarations of remorse, and accept his proposal." 

Abbey shows her after her earlier rage has transformed to numbness and vulnerability. 

The painting was the sensation of the 1896 Royal Academy exhibition. Punch dubbed it "The picture of the year." The Art Journal said it was "one of the artistic surprises of the century." 

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) Exhibition catalog
A book of Abbey's drawings is currently in development at Flesk Publications


Joanne Roberts said...

Creepy and cool at the same time about finding the king's remains. Regardless, thank-you for posting about Edwin Austin Abbey. He is at the top of my all-time favorites list. I've never seen these sketches of his process. Thanks!

My Pen Name said...

Many argue that Richard's sinister reputation is more the result of propaganda (and Shakespeare) than reality.

The Richard III society offers a 'different' viewpoint:

Here's a facial reconstruction:

My Pen Name said...

PS another fascinating aspect of the find:

Miss Langley was strolling across the car park used by Leicester social services while researching a play about the king when she felt a chill in August 2009.

'It was a hot summer and I had goosebumps so badly and I was freezing cold. I walked past a particular spot and absolutely knew I was walking on his grave,' she told the Sunday Times.

'I am a rational human being but the feeling I got was the same feeling I have had before when a truth is given to me.'


Rich said...

Another gorgeous post: So interesting to follow up the whole meticulous painstaking process leading to the final painting. (Anyone remembers WORK as the biggest buzzword in Artspeak Word Cloud?)

Great rendering of the final scene; astonishing to see it all ending up beneath a parking lot:-(

Jim Hartlage said...

I know this isn't related to this post, but I made it to the Lyman Allen Art Museum on the very last day - - I am really glad that I did. The paintings are even more amazing in person. If this exhibit moves on to a local near you, make sure you make the trip.

Anthony Hopper said...

The clincher was the DNA test.

Fraser said...

A nice painting but a horrible distortion of Richard. Scoliosis doesn't indicate a huge hump a´la Tudor Propaganda. He was considered a good king a a fine warrior in his lifetime. To sit a horse and swing a battleaxe suggests he wasn't the horrible thing depicted here.

armandcabrera said...

I wish someone would do a big book on Abbeys paintings. As nice as his drawing and pen work was we already have three books about that aspect of his career. He was more famous and successful than Sargent in his lifetime Abbey really deserves a serious book on his major works.