Edwin Austin Abbey (American, 1852–1911)
Image: 101.6 x 261.6 cm (40 x 103 in.) Framed: 114.9 x 275.9 cm (45 1/4 x 108 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Jan and Warren Adelson Gallery (Gallery 221)
Hired by his friend the architect Stanford White, Abbey painted A Pavane as an overmantel for the dining room of the prominent New York publisher and diplomat Whitelaw Reid. Reid’s elaborate apartment, the most luxurious in a suite called the Villard Houses (at 50th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City), had been built in the mid-1880s by the architectural firm McKim, Mead,& White, and several rooms were being renovated under White’s supervision. The dining room, some seventy feet (21.3 meters) long, was baronial in style; its Renaissance-inspired decorative scheme was well suited to the house’s palazzo-like exterior and to the social standing and ambition of both the apartment’s original owner, Henry Villard, and that of Reid. Abbey’s canvas was designed to fit over a dark pink marble fireplace and mantel designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens with his brother Louis; both men were sculptors and friends of White’s. Abbey was a key figure in a group of cosmopolitan artists that included not only White and the Saint-Gaudenses but also, among others, the Americans John Singer Sargent [link to ch. 8] and Francis Millet [1981.77] and the Anglo-Dutch painter Laurence Alma-Tadema [17.3239, 41.117]. Abbey was well known for his carefully detailed and romanticized historical scenes [2008.2]. By the time he began A Pavane, Abbey was also earning great praise as a decorative painter, acclaimed for his series of murals, The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail, for the Boston Public Library, a building that had also been designed by McKim, Mead, &White.
Extensive correspondence documents the course of the Reid commission as Abbey sought, through White, to discern his client’s wishes and to determine the physical parameters for his work. The Reids hoped the painting would brighten a dark room and White had initially proposed a festive banqueting scene, but Abbey offered them an alternative: a display of dancers. By mid-December 1895, Whitelaw Reid told White that he and his wife Elisabeth Mills Reid had “been gradually absorbing the spirit of the two sketches, and trying to make up our minds … I like the idea of a dancing scene quite as well as I should that of a banquet … [and] having the rashness and self-confidence of my sex, I am inclined to believe [Mrs. Reid] will like it as well as I do when it is finished.” 
Abbey’s final composition of dancing couples speaks to the room’s purpose as a place of entertainment and social interaction. His subject, a pavane, a court dance of the Renaissance with stylized movements and stately rhythms, would have complemented the dignified architecture of the room. The rich deep colors were planned to stand out against the marble and dark wood of the fireplace surround, while the luxurious backdrop of patterned cloth enhanced with gold paint would have shimmered in the evening light. Abbey made multiple drawings and oil sketches in his attempt to devise a satisfactory arrangement (these are now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut). Working in his studio in the rural village of Fairford in Gloucestershire, England, where he had lived since 1891, he settled upon a frieze of figures, bounded by topiary trees, in a shallow space that would have appeared to recede from the mantel. Abbey employed his customary attention to detail, studying with great care the particular aspects of historical clothing and the positions and gestures of each of the dancers. The herringbone pattern of the tiled floor is rendered with painstaking precision, its angles carefully calculated and then disguised with the reflective sheen of figures and fabrics.
A Pavane is an easel painting, an independent canvas fitted in (but not attached) to its architectural setting. Abbey, in New York in the spring of 1897 to attend to the illness of his wife’s mother, made several final adjustments to his canvas and sent it to the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists, where a critic for The Collector praised it as “the finest thing” in the show. The writer for the New York Times concurred, adding, “in loftiness of sentiment, nobility of conception and treatment, richness of color, movement, and expression, and gracefulness of the figures and ease of drawing, this superb work is altogether delightful. One almost hears the tinkling of the mandolins.” After the exhibition closed, the canvas was delivered to the Reids, who paid Abbey $5,000 for it. It remained in situ at least until the early 1930s when, following the death of Elisabeth Reid, the apartment was slowly dismantled and closed. The painting stayed in the Reid family until 1951, when Helen Rogers Reid, widow of Whitelaw Reid’s son Ogden, sold it at public auction. The original room and fireplace are intact and extant, now part of the New York Palace Hotel.
1. Whitelaw Reid to Stanford White, December 14, 1895, roll 2073, Saarinen Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
2. The Collector, April 1, 1897, 163.
3. New York Times, March 27, 1897, BR15.
Erica E. Hirshler
Signed, dated, and inscribed (at lower right): E.A. Abbey 1897; (at lower left): copyright 1897 by E. A. ABBEY; (on the back): A PAVANNE / E.A. ABBEY / MORGAN HALL / ENGLAND
1897, commissioned for the home of Whitelaw Reid (1837-1912), New York; 1912, descended through the family to his daughter-in-law, Helen Rogers Reid; March 22-24, 1951, sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, lot 492 to Giovanni Castano Galleries, Boston. After 1955, Françoise Hermann (1919-2003), Falmouth, Mass.; May 2, 2004, Estate of Francoise Hermann, Bonham's and Butterfields, lot 1160 (as The Dance of the Troubadours). 2004, Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York; 2004, sold by Hirschl and Adler Galleries to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 23, 2004)
Bequest of Susan A.D. McKelvey and Bequest of Kathleen Rothe, by exchange