Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014...9:30 am

Two Recently Identified Sketches by Edwin Austin Abbey

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TCS 2 (Ristori, Adelaide) versoAmerican painter and illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey offered the following counsel to aspiring young artists:

You should be sketching always… Draw the dishes on the table while you are waiting for breakfast. Draw the people in the station while you are waiting for your train… It is all part of your world. You are going to be one of a profession to which everything on earth means something.

The recent discovery of two signed Abbey sketches on the backs of cabinet card portraits in the Harvard Theatre Collection not only demonstrates that the artist followed his own advice, it also underscores his assertion that in the world of art everything means something—occasionally, even the reverse side of photographs. In this case, viewed back to front, the cabinet cards offer an intriguing glimpse of the interwoven visual cultures of painting, photography, and the performing arts that animated artistic practice during the late nineteenth-century United States.

Both of Abbey’s sketches have the spontaneous quality of visual notes, a few lines jotted down in pencil to work out an idea or capture a passing observation. The first depicts two views of a male figure in a morning coat and top hat—one a three-quarter view from behind, and the other a standing profile. Just above appear to be details of the costume he wears, the long tails of a cutaway coat and some type of strap or buckle. In the second sketch, the tentative outline of a tree with bare, broken branches is crowned with a large cursive signature and test patches of watercolor pigments in burgundy and blue.

TCS 2 (Ristori, Adelaide) versoTCS 2 (Nilsson, Christine) verso

Although too little is known about the cabinet cards’ provenance to allow the sketches to be dated with certainty, the photographs pasted to their fronts have considerably clearer origins. The first (paired with the male figures) is a portrait of Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori taken in the studio of America’s leading stage photographer Napoleon Sarony in 1867 when she appeared in Luigi Camoletti’s Suor Theresa in New York City. The second, taken by Sarony’s protégé José Marie Mora, depicts Swedish operatic soprano Christina Nilsson playing the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust for the inaugural 1883 performance at the Metropolitan Opera House.

TCS 2 (Ristori, Adelaide)TCS 2 (Nilsson, Christine)

First introduced in the 1860s, cabinet cards are albumen print photographs mounted on thin cardboard measuring just over four by six inches. During the peak years of their popularity in the 1870s and 80s, millions of these photographs were in circulation across the United States and Europe where they were collected, traded, and displayed—in albums, on mantelpieces, or in artists’ studios. In 1881, Sarony’s studio reportedly produced around one thousand cabinet cards every day, and the staff dedicated to mounting, trimming and labeling each photograph by hand took up an entire floor in his building on the northwest corner of Union Square.

But how and why did these photographs come into Abbey’s possession? Perhaps he had these portraits of actresses at his easel to use as specific reference in his illustration or mural work, or perhaps he saw the performances depicted and purchased cabinet cards as souvenirs. Like many artists of his era, Abbey was an avid theatregoer, and as the dramatic grandeur of his murals depicting the Quest for the Holy Grail in the Boston Public Library attest, the pageantry and spectacle of contemporary theatrical and operatic performances were major formal influences on his work in the visual arts as well.

It is also possible that Abbey acquired one or both of the photographs directly from Napoleon Sarony. The two men were well acquainted, and during the late 1870s both were members of The Tile Club, an elite Gilded Age artists’ society that met weekly at Sarony’s to sketch, paint ceramic tiles, and to fortify themselves with music, beer, and artistic fellowship. Amid the cheerful clutter of paintings and bric-a-brac that decorated the photographer’s studio, Abbey may well have found cabinet cards to be the only available surfaces at hand when inspiration struck; or fresh from a night with his brother Tilers, he may have discovered an errant cabinet card in his pocket just as he was sitting down at the table for his breakfast, or waiting in the station for a train.

Regardless, Abbey’s use of cabinet cards as impromptu sketchpads highlights the one-time ubiquity of this now obsolete photographic format, and offers a unique perspective on the cultural currents and social networks that shaped the landscape of visual art during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

Erin Pauwels, Doctoral Candidate in the History of Art at Indiana University and 2013-14 recipient of the Beatrice, Benjamin, and Richard Bader Fellowship in the Visual Arts of the Theatre, contributed this post.

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