Edwin Austin Abbey was an American muralist, illustrator and painter. He rose to prominence during the beginning of what is now known as the “golden age” of illustration. His works had medieval, Shakespearean and Victorian subjects. Despite a heterogenous choice of forms and themes, his oeuvre remains firmly cemented in the British woodblock artists of the 1860s’. For a long period, he was an expatriate in England by choice and his painting reflects the transatlantic richness. It is infused with the medieval and renaissance imaginaries which were in vogue during the Victorian and Edwardian fin de siècle.
Despite his medieval and Shakespearean themes, Abbey was also formalistically a realist and his early works reflect this. The painting under analysis was drawn with black chalk, pen, black ink and grey wash. Similarly, the tone is increased with white on wove paper sheet. It is a product of Abbey’s early years in his mid-twenties, when he had returned to the art department at Pennsylvania after freelancing illustrations for Harper’s Magazine. Although the date is 1878, it is known that Abbey migrated to England during the same year to collect materials on Robert Herrick, after numerous collaborative illustrations with fellow artists at the art department with a keen eye for detail. It was also after the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia which featured the illustrations and painting of numerous artists from both sides of the Atlantic.
Interpreting the Painting
The illustration shows a young woman in typical Victorian elitist attire complete with gloves, a top-hat made of cloth and an umbrella. She is moving through an apparently shabby neighborhood with two of the locals on a bench gazing at her. They are probably indulging in cheap jokes and banter. They are clad in cheap attire to be seen on drunks, vagabonds and tramps of the time. A relatively young man, probably once of genteel background, but now chanced upon by misfortune, apparent from his attire, demure look and the travel-bundle by the side of his seat. He sits quietly with his back towards the older men. He is possibly shielding his right ear with his hand against the cheap jokes with a face that reflects discomfort.
The bench and the seat are set on the porch of a bar quite reminiscent of old west cinema. A woman of color leans out and gazes, visibly awed, at the elite young woman from a window behind the two locals . The two children in tattered clothes are probably playing marbles in front of the porch behind the young woman. A canister of water or ale is visible through the door that opens on to the porch and a white cat stares at the elite woman from the doorway. The entire ambience is gray and dull indicating that dusk is approaching and the entire scene seems cut-out from a very old and tattered manuscript. Above all, what is definitively eye-catching is the pride that the elite young woman wears on her face and brows. She seems oblivious to the neighborhood and people around her. However, on a closer look, a faint and mocking smile on her face indicates the air of superiority she exhibits.
Theme of the painting
Certain themes are apparent from the illustration. The architecture and spatial dynamics situate the neighborhood in the dust bowl of the Midwest or the Old West. It is a territory for the abject and liminal areas of society. Many communities flourished in the dust bowl, from Quakers to Anglicans. However with the arrival of the merchant classes, business experienced a boom and soon the class divide was very clear. The young man on the seat is probably a poor immigrant, but apparently of moral upbringing that situates him in an in-between space, with his back to the “abject dregs” of society and his aspirations towards the elite woman.
The faces of the poor children are not depicted as it might have seemed morally outrageous to picture children with corrupt looks. With the sense of childhood being “very pure”, per the populist outlook of the times, Abbey turns the backs of the children to the viewers as they shun class-divided society to keep to their innocent play. Besides, the awe on the face of the woman of color indicates her aspiration and the acute racism of the times. Nevertheless, as the Midwest (and the Old West) was an in-between region to the north and the confederacy, it was a melting-pot of people of differing races and cultures.
The woman of color is almost leaning on the two locals, but they hardly seem to care and continue their banter. The class distinctions and power hierarchies are spatially divided through the architectonics of the porch. Similarly, the tavern and the economically disadvantaged children, the woman of color, the local drunks, the young immigrant and even the cat are all connected as marginal, liminal and nonhuman (through the semiotic presence of the cat that stares in awe at the elite woman). They are rendered so by their attention to the young and bourgeoisie woman who wears “pride upon her brow” and mockingly enjoys the power she exerts over them all within their own space. A subtle hint of bourgeoisie ownership over space, place and property is clear.
A lot could be said about the power hierarchies and dynamics of the non-human with race, gender, ethnicity and class in the illustration and its figures. What is of equal importance however, is the hearkening back to neoclassical style of power dynamics and associations through a woman who ironically, now exerts the very power that she probably is subject to in her home by her husband etc. on “lesser organisms” of society and nature. The entire illustration throws into question what it is to be human or nonhuman based on power hierarchies and associations. As the illustration raises many such questions, its form and style reflects the in-between dusty nature of the Midwest where everything is uncertain and relative.