The Daughters of King Lear In 1898 Edwin Austin Abbey painted a beautiful depiction of a scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The scene is of Cordelia leaving her sisters and all of court after her father, King Lear, divides his kingdom to her two elder sisters, Regan and Goneril, leaving her with nothing. This painting has been named many different names such as Cordelia’s Farewell, Scene from King Lear, and the most fitting, The Daughters of King Lear, so called in the Yale University organized collection of Abbey’s paintings. This painting is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I first viewed it.
Unfortunately it was being held in viewable storage of the American Wing, and not out on display due to renovations. The painting is huge, 54 ? by 127 ? inches, and impressive. It is a different version of an emotional scene of one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, as well as a perfect example of Edwin Austin Abbey’s work. The Daughters of King Lear is an oil on canvas painting. The scene is one of the three sisters in some sort of throne room. The sisters are saying their goodbyes, and Cordelia is being led out of the room.
On the right of the painting King Lear and his court are leaving the sisters with their backs to them; Lear looks frail and old with long white hair around his shoulders, and his head is hanging as if he is shameful for his favorite daughter’s failure to proclaim her awesome love for her father. As the attendants of the king are exiting with him, all of their heads face the background of the painting, which gives the impression of the daughters, specifically Cordelia, being shunned. Abbey added emotion to the scene by using a few visual elements.
The postures of the figures, the costumes, and the facial expressions all injected extra sentiment into the characters Abbey brought to life. Abbey paid great attention to minute details in his paintings to add the perfect amount of feeling into his characters. The figures in The Daughters of King Lear are so expressive that one cannot help but be drawn into the story. The main subjects of the painting are dressed ornately. Abbey was fascinated by medieval and renaissance dress, and modeled the figures after those periods and romanticized them (Foster 3-7).
Everyone’s clothes are draping and flowing, as well as colorful. Abbey used vibrant reds all over the painting, in Regan’s and Goneril’s dresses, in the ornate rug on the floor, throughout the court’s clothing, in the various furnishings throughout the room, and also in Regan’s and Cordelia’s hair. For Cordelia’s dress Abbey used white, to emphasize her innocence, since she is the only sister who stood by her father and did not lie to him for personal gain. King Lear also wears white, probably to accentuate his old age and frailty. The costumes add to the romantic feel of the scene.
Facial expressions are also important to the piece. Only three faces can really be seen in the painting, Regan’s, Goneril’s, and Cordelia’s, but they are interesting to interpret. The character assumed to be Goneril, on the left side of the painting dressed in black with reed trim, is hard to see completely, but her expression is one of disdain. She sneers at Cordelia while looking down on her. Regan’s face is different than that of her elder sister. She smiles a triumphant smile at her younger sister, Cordelia, and looks almost amused at her present circumstances.
Regan’s expression appears to be intending to look empathetic for her sister. Cordelia’s face, however, is not hiding anything. Cordelia looks as if she cannot believe her sisters just allowed her to be disinherited; her face shows her true disgust for her sisters’ insincere actions. If looks could cause physical pain, Cordelia’s would have inflicted some hurt on her sisters. But under Cordelia’s angry countenance there is a subtle sorrow; her lips curl downward, showing her sadness at being disinherited and having to leave her family and her father, whom she truly loves and cares for.
A poem by William Michael Rossetti called Cordelia describes the sisters’ facial expressions. According to Yale University’s Kathleen Foster the poem, published in The Germ, was a strong influence on Abbey when he painted The Daughters of King Lear (7). The sneering and disdainful looks in the painting could be based off those described by Rossetti in his poem. Abbey’s painting has a great flow of direction. The eye is drawn first to Goneril on the extreme left of the canvas. The viewer follows her eyes to the right and catches a glimpse of Regan whose eyes are also leading to the left.
Next on view is Cordelia who, although her eyes point back to the left, the eye follows through her arm over to the right of the painting where the cluster of people stands. Some of the crowd have their arms raised to the top right portion of the canvas. These horizontal and diagonal lines lead the eye to all the focal points Abbey intends the viewer to see. One of the figures is easy to overlook although he stands in the center of the painting. This figure is the man leading Cordelia away from her sisters, and kissing her hand. This man is Abbey’s representation of the King of France.
Cordelia married the King soon after leaving her family. The King stood by her even though he knew she would inherit nothing, which to some proves that of the two suitors Cordelia had, he was the better choice for her. Abbey tried to express some of the love that the King felt for Cordelia with the loving kiss on her hand and the way his arm is gently leading her away from her vindictive sisters. Even though the King wears and ornate crown and colorful garments, his figure is easy to overlook because of his close proximity to the figure of Cordelia, who dominates the foreground of the painting.
The visual elements of The Daughters of King Lear are typical of those of Edwin Austin Abbey’s other paintings and illustrations. From the time Abbey joined the staff at Harper’s Weekly at age nineteen, he loved to illustrate Shakespeare’s plays and English scenes (Ermoyan 92). The most influential part of Abbey’s life was his offer from Harper’s Weekly to move to England and illustrate for their English division, which he gladly took (Simpson par 1). Abbey packed up and moved to England in 1878 and found his true home.
In England Abbey married a socialite who put him in position to meet many popular poets, authors, and painters. One of the most important people in Abbey’s life in England was his close friend Alfred Parsons, with whom he shared studio space. Abbey was also impressed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; one member of the Brotherhood was the aforementioned William Michael Rossetti. Various British influences contributed to Abbey’s works. Other influences for Abbey’s paintings were other artists’ works.
Some believe that Abbey found inspiration for The Daughters of King Lear from Ford Maddox Brown’s paintings, Cordelia’s Portion and Cordelia’s Parting from Her Sisters (Foster 6,7). These illustrations accompanied Rossetti’s poem in The Germ. Cordelia’s Parting from Her Sisters is an illustration much like Abbey’s. The three sisters in Brown’s picture are featured with similar facial expressions and gestures as the sisters in Abbey’s painting. The King of France is included in Brown’s illustration as well, and King Lear and his attendants are retreating in the far background.
Abbey surely studied this illustration before rearranging the scene in his mind to create his own interpretation. Edwin Austin Abbey can be classified as a Victorian artist (Foster 3). Abbey created his art in a time in between the old school landscapes that typified the American Romantic ideals and the upcoming new urban naturalism of the early 1900’s. Yale University’s Kathleen Foster described him as a Victorian painter who held on to Romantic traits (4). In 1898 Abbey was made a full member of the Royal Academy which gained him even more recognition both in Europe and the United States.
Abbey is considered by some to be one of the greatest medievalists of his time (Foster 4). Abbey’s favorite subjects were Shakespearian and medieval scenes, which is why The Daughters of King Lear is a perfect example of Abbey’s works (Ermoyan 92). Abbey got his start as a pen-and-ink illustrator at sixteen. When Harper’s Weekly sent him to England, Abbey’s original assignment was to illustrate a compilation of Shakespeare’s plays. Abbey concentrated strongly on historical subjects, and moved on to paintings; he experimented with watercolors, oils, and pastels.
While his paintings are beautiful and exquisitely detailed, Abbey’s drawings are renowned for their elegance (Simpson par 1). Like many of his contemporaries, Abbey used these mediums to create beautiful works of art that avoided the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution that surrounded them (Foster 3). Besides his paintings and drawings, Abbey is known today for his murals in the Boston Public Library. The murals, titled The Quest of the Holy Grail, once again stay true to Abbey’s natural tendency toward romantic figures of the past.
Abbey was also given the commission to paint the coronation of King Edward VII, by the King himself. Abbey’s name is still remembered today in the United Kingdom for this painting (Ermoyan 92). These great works also outline the struggle Abbey faced to connect both with his spiritual home in England and his American identity. Although Abbey had contemporaries in England during his life, he was never fully accepted by critics in England because of his American status (Foster 5). In fact, Abbey declined Knighthood after painting Edward VII’s coronation in order to retain his American citizenship.
Conversely, Abbey was not accepted by American critics because he was considered European by most standards (Foster 5). Abbey vacillated between his two identities, but contributed great works for both of his countries. When Edwin Austin Abbey died in 1911 he left behind a legacy of pen-and-ink drawings and paintings. Of all Abbey’s various works, however, one stands out as a wonderful example of his life’s work and ideas. The Daughters of King Lear contains the most common characteristics of Abbey’s works, with its romantic figures, Shakespearian foundation, colorful costumes, and distinct lines and flow.