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The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester

Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852–1911)


Medium oil on canvas Measurements H: 49 x W: 85 x D: 3 3/4 in. (124.5 x 215.9 x 9.53 cm) Credit Purchase Accession Number 02.1 Location Not on View


The subject of this large narrative painting comes from Shakespeare's Henry VI: Part II, act 2, scene 4. Eleanor, having vainly urged her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Protector, to usurp the throne of England, has committed the treasonable offense of consulting sorcerers about the length of the king's life. She has been sentenced to three days' public penance walking barefoot through the streets of London. Eleanor stands in the center of the picture clad in a white sheet; soldiers restrain the menacing crowd. Eleanor turns her head to her husband, who stands beside members of his entourage dressed in mourning cloaks, and says to him: Come you, my lord, to see my open shame? Now thou dost penance too. Look how they gaze! See how the giddy multitude do point, And nod their heads, and throw their eyes on thee! Ah, Gloucester, hide thee from their hateful looks, And, in thy closet pent up, rue my shame, And ban thine enemies, both mine and thine! Abbey's interpretation of the Shakespearean environment as tense and hallucinatory had appeared in earlier canvases and later in his pen illustrations of Shakespeare's plays that were published in Harper's Monthly between 1902 and 1905. The painting's shallow, crowded frieze of monumental figures is typical of Abbey's work of the late 1890s and reflects both medieval and English Pre-Raphaelite prototypes. Large areas of black, white, and red dominate the canvas in accordance with the artist's belief that these were the basic colors used by all great painters. His preference for this palette surely also derived from the boldness and coherence it gave to his paintings.

Artist Bio

Sadakichi Hartmann called Edwin Austin Abbey "a virtuoso of penmanship, one of the greatest pen-and-ink artists that ever lived." Joseph Pennell thought him "the greatest American illustrator." Indeed, Abbey was an extraordinarily popular artist and a key figure in the flowering of American illustration that took place in the 1870s.

After working as an apprentice wood-engraver for a publisher in his native Philadelphia, Abbey joined the staff of Harper and Brothers in 1870 and soon became the firm's leading illustrator. He settled in England after 1878, where he joined a circle of brilliant expatriates that included Frank D. Millet, John Singer Sargent, and Henry James. Despite his success as a painter (he became a Royal Academician in 1898 and in 1902 was appointed court artist for the coronation of Edward VII), Abbey remained a regular contributor to Harper's Weekly almost until his death.