Oil on canvas, 52.5 x 104.25 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.
This scene occurs in Richard III, Act I, scene ii, when Richard, who has played a part in the deaths of Edward, Prince of Wales, and his father, Henry VI, admits, "What though I killed her husband and father," woos Anne, who is taking the body of her father-in-law Henry VI to his burial in Chertsey, in the very presence of the king's corpse. The painting was accompanied in the Royal Academy catalogue for 1896 with these lines from Richard's final passage in the scene: "Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?"
Abbey, for the purposes of the composition of this large canvas and his customary grand style, departs from Shakespeare's text; whereas the scene in the play occurs after Richard has ordered the bearers to set down the hearse, Abbey sets the whole scene in motion, with Anne quite obviously attempting to escape Richard's attention. The scene as Shakespeare describes it is much closer to this realization by John Gilbert in an illustration for Howard Staunton's The Works of Shakespeare (1867), a volume which, according to Lucy Oakley (43), Abbey owned. Gilbert's picture is reproduced on the right.
Richard III was a popular source for paintings; Richard Altick notes that some fifty paintings are based on the play (281). The most popular scene was one that we actually never see in the play: the murder of the princes in the tower, only recounted for us in Act IV, scene iii. The other popular scene for the painters comes from Act V, scene iii, where, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard dreams of the spirits of all those he has destroyed. The instincts of Abbey when he chose the less frequently illustrated scene of Richard's wooing were nevertheless shrewd; his painting was, Altick says, "the picture of the year" (283) when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896.
The scene is so intrinsically dramatic and tense that Abbey was wise to choose it to paint. As with his other paintings on Shakespeare, he captures the sense of the scene by departing from it. When Richard first accosts Anne, she reviles him in a passage fraught with contempt and loathing:
Foul devil, for God's sake hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Filled it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O, gentlemen, see! See dead Henry's wounds
Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh!
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity;
For 'tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells.
Thy deeds inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God, which this blood mad'st, revenge his death!
O earth, which this blood drink'st, revenge his death!
Either heav'n with lightning strike the murderer dead;
Or earth gape open wide and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good king's blood,
Which his hell-governed arm hath butchered!
A mere 150 lines later Richard has perhaps amazed even himself when his courtship has succeeded and he can exclaim, "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" The haste and too ready acceptance on Anne's part astounds the viewer, and Abbey certainly captures that sense of feckless forward movement, with the whole cortege sweeping along the cobblestone street as it does in the painting.
Lucy Oakley adds a number of important details on the sources of the painting which we need not duplicate here (40-44). Her reading of the various symbolic aspects of the painting perhaps over-interprets the scene (43), but she points out one nice detail in the foreground of the canvas: directly in front of Richard is the kennel and sewer, a metaphor that tells us all we need to know about the character of the man who now sets out to add Anne to his list of victims.