Edwin Austin Abbey’s “King Lear, Act I, scene 1” (Metropolitan Museum Favorites, 23)

Edwin Austin Abbey, King Lear Act I, scene 1 (Cordelia’s Farewell), 1897-1898. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1913. Image: Wikipedia

King Lear opens with Lear demanding that his daughters tell him how much they love him, before he divides his kingdom between them. In this ten-foot-wide painting of that scene, Abbey didn’t use the elaborately costumed figures to illustrate a particular moment. Instead, each one reveals the emotions that drive them through the rest of the play.  At the far left is Goneril, the eldest, a schemer with a sneer, who told Lear:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour

In bright red is the middle daughter, Regan, who’s about to settle down on her father’s throne. She told him (gotta love the ambiguity):

                               Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness’ love.

Cordelia, the youngest, points to her father, but looks disbelievingly at her sisters. She’s tongue-tied:

What shall Cordelia do?
Love, and be silent.

Lear, offended that his favorite child won’t even try to surpass her sisters’ expressions of love, sends Cordelia into exile – but allows her two suitors to marry her, if they will. The king of France (kissing her hand) was fell in love with her honesty:

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor;
Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised!
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon …
Thy dowerless daughter, king, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France …
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind:
Thou losest here, a better where to find.

At right, the aged Lear, supported by his attendants, is exiting. We can’t see his face, but the mood is set by the dog who follows him, head hanging. It was bloody brilliant to use that dog rather than showing Lear’s face.

Edwin Austin Abbey

Abbey (1852-1911) was one of the great illustrators of the nineteenth century. Like his fellow Philadelphian Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), he could convey a scene or a mood with simple but vivid details. By age 19, Abbey had begun a decades-long gig with Harper & Row, illustrating books by Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Robert Herrick, and Oliver Goldsmith. Abbey was heavily influenced by the pre-Raphaelites (including Waterhouse, whom we met with Tennyson’s “Lady Clare”). In 1878 he moved to England, where he became fascinated with British history and culture.

My favorite speech from King Lear (Act I, scene 2)

A bit reminiscent of Cavafy, or the other way about. This is the wicked Edmund speaking.

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!


  • Another work by Abbey at Metropolitan Museum: Dirge of the Three Queens, a scene in pastel from Two Noble Kinsmen, a play attributed to John Fletcher and Shakespeare (first published in 1634).
  • Abbey did a massive set of paintings on the search for the Holy Grail for Boston Public Library: not my favorite subject, but I like his style enough to check them out next time I’m in Boston. Ditto for his series of murals for the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which did not know about even though Pennsylvania is the state of my birth as well as Abbey’s. For more works by Abbey, see the Wikimedia page. My favorite is Potpourri.
  • For biographical information on Abbey, see N. Elizabeth Schlatter’s article in American National Biography (by subscription).
  • Central Park has John Quincy Adams Ward’s Shakespeare, dedicated in 1872. See Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide  and the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide, available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free previewcomplete app).
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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