The winding country roads leading to utterly New Englandy Bridgewater, Connecticut, turned into serpentine lanes en route to Robert and Marilyn Abbett’s fairytale Oakdale Farm, a hilltop homestead overlooking ever-changing Hudson River School landscapes set beneath the biggest sky I’d ever seen within a hundred miles of Manhattan.
The property resonated with dogs, both cherished pets and immortalized in art—their English setter, Duke, may be the most-painted dog in canine history. Everything indicated that Abbett had long left behind the flat steel-mill-and-stockyard landscapes of his northern Indiana youth (born 1926). Yet the artist retained the soft-spoken modesty of Midwesterners, and his eyes had taken on the liquid appeal he expresses so well in his classic setters, ribby pointers, zealous Brittanys, and avid Labs.
I assumed that Abbett had spent his entire life painting and shooting over dogs, but he didn’t start following woodcock and ruffed grouse into their light-dappled kingdoms until he was 32; hunting dogs came into the picture (pun intended) several years later. And although he’d been an avid childhood scribbler—well supplied by his father, a salesman for a paint company who took him to the Chicago Art Institute—he showed little interest in art in either high school or college. Instead, he went crazy for photography at age 10 when he was given a Bakelite camera. Much later, while working as a photographer’s helper packing a 4 x 5 Speed Graphic, he bought a paint set for no apparent reason and began copying photos from Popular Photography magazine, turning the family’s screened-in porch into his studio.
Only then did he study art (and journalism) at the University of Missouri, followed by the American Academy of Art and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. This led to an apprenticeship in a commercial art studio during that great era when artists, including Ogden Pleissner and A. Lassell Ripley, illustrated stories for Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping, and created such iconic advertising images as the girl and pup that Joyce Ballantyne painted for Coppertone suntan lotion. In that environment, surrounded by gifted and generous mentors, Abbett received an unequalled education in assembling accurate references and producing plausible realism on whatever subject came down the tubes, learning to work quickly in different fast-drying media such as watercolors, casein colors, and gouache (sometimes incorrectly called tempera)—a precious skill for “real” artists sketching in the field.
This was an era when illustrative art was being swept away by photography and advertising budgets were increasingly diverted to television. Nevertheless, in 1955, Abbett, now married to Marilyn and the father of two children, moved close to Westport, Connecticut, in those years home to an entire community of New York City admen, photographers, and illustrators who socialized, shared modeling props, and networked long before the term existed.
Abbett freelanced for Sports Afield, Hugh Hefner (under a nom de plume), and pulp magazines like True, and produced portraits of Charles de Gaulle, Jimmy Stewart, and Winston Churchill for Reader’s Digest and others. He did paperback book covers for Bantam Books and Fawcett Publications of western, science fiction, romance, and adventure titles, including the entire Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan series.
Abbett is a self-confessed sucker for maples and elms in full autumn glory, and his “Sunday art” consisted mostly of contemplative oil landscapes. “Fall would become a season for painting for me,” he says. When he saw a boy and a white dog cutting across a pasture, the vision revealed to him how the dog immediately brought the landscape to life, giving the geography context, purpose, and a place in time. “Dogs unified everything.”
In 1970, a commissioned portrait of a neighbor’s English setter hard on point, reminiscent of Percival Rosseau (1859–1937), was published as a limited-edition print by Fred King’s Sportsman’s Edge gallery. This changed the course of Abbett’s career forever. He bought Oakdale Farm and turned full time from commercial to gallery art.
Artists like Abbett would never think of pulling stock images for references for their sporting art, whose very soul depends on Being There. Instead, this “Norman Rockwell of dogs” hunted and painted some of the finest establishments and estates, including Clarendon Plantation in South Carolina and Riverview and Wildfair Plantations in Georgia. He shot over Gordon setters on grouse in New England; German shorthairs frozen on pheasant in Midwestern cornfields; Labs itching for ducks to fly in over blinds in New England; and rawboned pointers on covies of quail in both Texas scrub country andthe pines and palmetto of Carolina Lowcountry.
Being There allows Abbett to paint scenes from different points of view, which makes his work especially refreshing. Sometimes, as in Rangeland Bobs, we see the action from behind the dogs, through the eyes of the off-canvas hunter; the birds, in various stages of flight, appear quite small. In The Quail Wagon, we face the action, and the outrider’s raised hat speaks as much to the viewer as to the hunting party on the Thomasville wagon behind.
Sometimes the scene is up close and tight to express heightened activity, as in Broken Covey; compressing distances and time builds drama while maintaining the illusion of reality. To convey the big spaces of Texas quail country in Clay County Covey Rise, Abbett provides a widescreen, full-figure view with the action unfolding at some distance from the front of the canvas.For views from even farther out,he uses aerial perspective, where the colors and contrasts fade progressively with distance from the eye. Abbett starts by looking for a theme, or hook, that stirs the sportsman’s emotion or his identification with a work. He walks the woods with his camera, looking for references: stone walls and old fences to translate into compositional spines that link the human, canine, and scenic shapes; weathered trees, gnarled limbs, log piles, and rock formations full of character to visually anchor a painting and give a more complex texture to its surface while providing a dark background to offset a flashy white English setter.
He establishes depth of field by leading us past the principal players to far horizons—a lake glimpsed through beeches in the distance, or down streams zigzagging out of sight.
Abbett’s impressionistic realism has its origins in his commercial art. For example, the triangle he composed of interrelated images in his classic posters for movies like Villa Rides and Alvarez Kelly is found again in his sporting art. The hunter with raised shotgun, the upward winging game bird, and the horizontal of the pointer’s back, as seen in Late Day Woodcock, replace Yul Brenner and Robert Mitchum or William Holden and Richard Widmark.
Illustration taught him expression in ways that go beyond the Paint-Every-Hair school of art. Instead, he controls the viewer’s eye by carefully detailing some areas of the canvas to attract attention and leaving others merely suggested and relatively uninteresting, as in At the Edge of the Field. He fights the tendency of artists of realism to include every detail of Being There, knowing from his work in illustration how few props it takes to convincingly set the stage. Playing loose against tight, and eliminating some details while emphasizing others, keeps the eye where the artist wants it by determining the relative importance of the visual elements; it also makes a work more readable and interesting.