Fascination with the life and times of William Shakespeare abounded in the Victorian world, especially in London, where American artist Edwin Austin Abbey settled permanently in 1883. The Bard's writings provided lifelong inspiration for Abbey: as a teenage writer, he used a pen name from Hamlet; from the age of 20 he illustrated hundreds of Shakespearean subjects for magazines; and in the 1890s he painted seven large Shakespearean scenes, including this canvas, which he exhibited at London's Royal Academy.
The theme of this painting is drawn from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. The title "Who is Sylvia? What Is She, That All the Swains Commend Her?" is the opening question in a song composed by Proteus, one of the many suitors (or swains) of Sylvia, the Duke of Milan's stunning daughter. All heads turn toward the regal beauty as she lifts the skirts of her Italian Renaissance-style gown while descending a brilliantly carpeted staircase. Each admirer gazes at her and reaches to play an instrument or to offer her a love token. The figure at far left presents a luxurious feather fan; the next man a small dog; and the figure leaning against the column bows in devotion, holding his hat in one hand and a book of poetry in the other.
The painting's shallow, frieze like composition is characteristic of Abbey's work during this period. Just as the space is constricted, so are several different events from Shakespeare's play conflated into a single moment. The canvas's compressed form and content, as well as Abbey's attention to period costume, have their roots in the English Pre-Raphaelite movement with which the artist was associated. His approach also evokes the pictorialist fashion in late Victorian theater, which valued elaborate visual spectacle over plot to the degree that Shakespeare's texts were often radically shortened to accommodate time-consuming changes of intricate costume and scenery.
Remarkably, Abbey did not begin painting in oil until age 40, when he was mentored by his close friend and fellow expatriate John Singer Sargent. He still labored over his ambitious canvases, however, and during or after the display of "Who Is Sylvia?" at the Royal Academy, Abbey scraped out Sylvia's head and repainted it from another model. He also changed her arms, which were crossed, to their present position holding her dress, which originally had a train at the right. Abbey selected the painting's intricate frame, featuring decorative bands of different motifs that echo the gleaming gold fabric details in the scene. This opulent object—with its gilded frame and richly colored canvas—must have appealed greatly to the wealthy American mining baron William A. Clark, who purchased it directly from the artist.
lower right: E. A. Abbey 1899 / 1900
Acquired from the artist 1901 by William A. Clark [1839-1925]; bequest 1926 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- One hundred and thirty-first Annual Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1 May - 7 August 1899, no. 255.
- Twenty-fourth Exhibition of the Society of America, American Fine Arts Bulding, New York, 29 March - 4 May 1902.
- Seventy-second Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 19 January - 28 February 1903, no. 18.
- Winter Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 22 December 1906 - 19 January 1907, no. 76.
- Eleventh Annual Exhibition, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 11 April - 13 June 1907, no. 2.
- First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 7 February - 9 March 1907, no. 30.
- Twentieth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, Art Institute of Chicago, 22 October - 1 December 1907, no. 1, as Sylvia.
- Roman Art Exhibition, Pavilion of the United States of America, Rome, March 1911, no. 99.
- The Romantic Century, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1964, no catalogue.
- Long term loan, Chevy Chase Club, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 22 May - 9 July 1970.
- The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978, unnumbered catalogue.
- Sargent's Contemporaries, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 4 June - 28 August 1983, unpublished checklist, no. 1.
- The William A. Clark Collection: Treasures of a Copper King, Yellowstone Art Center, Billings; Montana Historical Society, Helena, 1989, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Unfaded Pagent: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York; Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington; Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1994-1995, no. 42.
- Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001-2002, no checklist.
- Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 8, repro.
- Simpson, Marc. "Edwin Austin Abbey, Who is Sylvia? What is She, That All the Swains Commend Her?" In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 178-179, 274, repro.