Friday, July 13, 2018

Abbey and Sargent, Side by Side

Edwin Austin Abbey shared a studio space with John Singer Sargent in England as they prepared their murals for the Boston Public Library. Abbey had worked for years as a pen-and-ink illustrator, but he had a lot to learn about painting in oil at a large scale.

Fortunately he had Sargent to show him the way, as a contemporary account describes:

Detail of Grail mural by Edwin Austin Abbey
"The evolution of Abbey's art at this point is remarkable. Heretofore he had dealt almost entirely in small pictures done in black and white. Now he suddenly 'blossomed forth in a night' as a painter in large, — covering canvas after canvas with powerful figures glowing in color. Yet these sweeping lines were evolved only after painful struggle.

"[William Merritt] Chase, who coached him at one time, says, ' I almost despaired of him: he would persist in seeing in black and white." And Abbey was particularly fortunate in having Sargent at his elbow while the Boston work was going forward, for Sargent was the maturer artist, and had dealt almost entirely in oils. The two men, indeed, were of mutual assistance, having followed different methods all their lives. Sargent was the painter of portraits in one medium; Abbey was the illustrator of stories in many mediums. Being opposites in other respects they naturally became good friends."

"The broad-minded viewpoint of these two strong men is shown by remarks made by them as the years sped by and the work seemed to languish. When Sargent was asked when he would complete his task, he replied, 'Never, unless I learn to paint better than I do now. Abbey has discouraged me.' While Abbey replied to a similar query, 'Give me a little time, and I'll do something worth while.'

Detail of Frieze of the Prophets by John Singer Sargent
What was it like in the Morgan Hall studio where Abbey and Sargent worked side by side?

Study for the Frieze of the Prophets
by John Singer Sargent
"It would have been hard to find a better equipped "laboratory" than the Morgan Hall annex at this time. Here was room for a dozen enormous easels at one time, without crowding, and the whole space was generally in use. Great sections of canvas might be seen in every stage of completion, the busy artist darting from one to another as fancy directed him ; while as for properties —many a theatre might have looked upon this collection with jealous eyes, for they were the real thing."

"Here were rare old tapestries hanging carelessly about, beautifully carved oak doors, heavy panels leaning against the walls, lay figures, bric-a-brac, suits of mail, standards of weapons, —swords, spears, gleaming battle-axes ; while chests of drawers overflowed with silks, brocades, velvets, and other rich fabrics of special weave and design. In another corner might be seen old chairs, settees, and musical instruments of quaint pattern ; and scattered about were studies, sketches of heads, arms, and legs, —all waiting to be melted in the crucible of the palette and transferred to their proper abiding-place. In an adjoining room devoted to the library might be found the finest folios on costume, and manifold works of reference."
Previously on GJ: Abbey, Sargent, and the Big Studio
Part 1: E.A. Abbey, "Greatest Living Illustrator"
Part 2: Abbey's Advice to a Young Artist
Manikin in the Snow
Abbey's Morgan Hall
Online Resources
Quotes are from Famous Painters of America by J. Walker McSpadden, 1916
E. A. Abbey on Wikipedia
Edwin Austin Abbey by E.V. Lucas
BPL's description of each of the Grail mural panels
Book: Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects
Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) Exhibition catalog


Paul Sullivan said...

This line says so much, "...he would persist in seeing in black and white."

These posts are great.

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