Oil on canvas, 54.5 x 127.25 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Abbey exhibited King Lear, another of his large, dramatic pictures, at the Royal Academy in 1898; the painting was accompanied in the catalog by these lines from Act I, scene i:
Ye jewels of our father, with washed eyes
Cordelia leaves you. I know what you are;
And, like a sister, am most loth to call
Your faults as they are named. Love well our father.
To your professed bosoms I commit him.
But yet, alas! stood I within his grace,
I would prefer him to a better place.
So farewell to you both.
The critics saw much to like in Abbey's King Lear. The reviewer for The Art Journal (1898, p. 176) comments especially on the bold use of color and the grouping of the figures on the canvas:
If the admirers of Mr. Abbey felt that the note of the superbly dramatic 'Richard III.' was not repeated with similar force in last year's 'Hamlet and Ophelia,' all doubts should be set at rest by the barbaric majesty of the Scene from 'Lear,' a subject which, under the title of 'Cordelia's Portion,' inspired Madox Brown to the production of one of his finest compositions. The dominant figure in Mr. Abbey's commanding decoration is Cordelia, and it is impossible to resist the colour-charm in which she is invested. Her yellow-green vestment with the deep blue border set against the green robe of France, and opposed to the menacing reds and blacks of Goneril and Regan, is a triumph of originality. As in Richard III. there is a strong suggestion motion, and the drooping figure of Lear sustained by his pages and followed by his men-at-arms from the left to right of the canvas gives this note. The dramatic figure of the sisters in the attitudes of dignified indifference and mock courtesy are splendidly realized, and the foot-light effect discernible throughout the picture certainly adds to the intenseness of the composition. Unmistakably in this important group, Mr. Abbey has reached a very high level and is going far to prove, by this magnificent series of object lessons, that his decorative style is capable of giving the fullest expression of dramatic motives.
"H. S.," the reviewer for The Spectator (May 14, 1898, p. 694), also remarks on the "audacity of the colour" and judges the effects "gorgeous and beautiful." "The truth of the gestures," he adds, "are as finely conceived as are the combinations of scarlet and purple black crimson and sea-green." He notes the dark-colored "poisonous beauty" of Regan and Goneril on the left and the striking contrast they make to Cordelia's pale clothing and the white robe of old Lear, who is led off to the right by his fool and knights. The colors are, he says, "as subtle a piece of characterization as any in the picture." This symbolic use of color in the painting is enhanced by the outstretched arm of Cordelia. The king of France holds and kisses Cordelia's hand, but at the same time she seems to reach out to the bent figure of her father. My favorite detail in the painting is the old dog that follows Lear. He too is lightly colored and hence forms, like Cordelia's arm, a bond between the figures of the disowned daughter and her father, and the symbolism of the faithful dog is not lost on the viewer. Dogs are alluded to seventeen times in King Lear (although I doubt the painter took the time to count them), and Abbey pointedly reinforces this recurrent image in the play. Lucy Oakley in her remarks on the painting sees even more detailed imagery:
The sinuous red border of Goneril's cloak resembles the coil and spring of a cobra, its line continuing up through her arm and ending in the fisted hand poised beneath her chin, with two fingers extended like the forked tongue of a snake. The reptilian effect is reinforced in the stiff, haughty pose of the head and in the steely expression of a character whom Shakespeare often identifies with snakes. . . . Regan's dress is decorated with figures of large beasts. . . . The red color of her dress, the low, central knotting of her hip-slung belt, and the long riverine fall of its cords through the valley created by the raising of her skirt all focus attention on her female sex, with its connotations of mystery, blood, and darkness. (46-7)
Oakley perhaps risks overreading the details of the painting in her comments, but Abbey does seem to echo the 133 references to 64 different animals that form a large measure of the textured imagery Shakespeare creates in King Lear.