The Daughters of King Lear

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The Daughters of King Lear

In 1898 Edwin Austin Abbey painted a beautiful depiction of a scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The scene is of Cordelia leaving her sisters and all of court after her father, King Lear, divides his kingdom to her two elder sisters, Regan and Goneril, leaving her with nothing. This painting has been named many different names such as Cordelia’s Farewell, Scene from King Lear, and the most fitting, The Daughters of King Lear, so called in the Yale University organized collection of Abbey’s paintings. This painting is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I first viewed it. Unfortunately it was being held in viewable storage of the American Wing, and not out on display due to renovations. The painting is huge, 54 ¼ by 127 ¼ inches, and impressive. It is a different version of an emotional scene of one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, as well as a perfect example of Edwin Austin Abbey’s work.

The Daughters of King Lear is an oil on canvas painting. The scene is one of the three sisters in some sort of throne room. The sisters are saying their goodbyes, and Cordelia is being led out of the room. On the right of the painting King Lear and his court are leaving the sisters with their backs to them; Lear looks frail and old with long white hair around his shoulders, and his head is hanging as if he is shameful for his favorite daughter’s failure to proclaim her awesome love for her father. As the attendants of the king are exiting with him, all of their heads face the background of the painting, which gives the impression of the daughters, specifically Cordelia, being shunned.

Abbey added emotion to the scene by using a few visual elements. The postures of the figures, the costumes, and the facial expressions all injected extra sentiment into the characters Abbey brought to life. Abbey paid great attention to minute details in his paintings to add the perfect amount of feeling into his characters. The figures in The Daughters of King Lear are so expressive that one cannot help but be drawn into the story.

The main subjects of the painting are dressed ornately. Abbey was fascinated by medieval and renaissance dress, and modeled the figures after those periods and romanticized them (Foster 3-7). Everyone’s clothes are draping and flowing, as well as colorful. Abbey used vibrant reds all over the painting, in Regan’s and Goneril’s dresses, in the ornate rug on the floor, throughout the court’s clothing, in the various furnishings throughout the room, and also in Regan’s and Cordelia’s hair. For Cordelia’s dress Abbey used white, to emphasize her innocence, since she is the only sister who stood by her father and did not lie to him for personal gain. King Lear also wears white, probably to accentuate his old age and frailty. The costumes add to the romantic feel of the scene.

Facial expressions are also important to the piece. Only three faces can really be seen in the painting, Regan’s, Goneril’s, and Cordelia’s, but they are interesting to interpret. The character assumed to be Goneril, on the left side of the painting dressed in black with reed trim, is hard to see completely, but her expression is one of disdain. She sneers at Cordelia while looking down on her. Regan’s face is different than that of her elder sister. She smiles a triumphant smile at her younger sister, Cordelia, and looks almost amused at her present circumstances. Regan’s expression appears to be intending to look empathetic for her sister. Cordelia’s face, however, is not hiding anything. Cordelia looks as if she cannot believe her sisters just allowed her to be disinherited; her face shows her true disgust for her sisters’ insincere actions. If looks could cause physical pain, Cordelia’s would have inflicted some hurt on her sisters. But under Cordelia’s angry countenance there is a subtle sorrow; her lips curl downward, showing her sadness at being disinherited and having to leave...
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