This black and white print is an oval bust portrait of Emma Abbott, depicted with pale skin and long dark hair pulled back from her face and styled into ringlets. Her bodice has a high collar but is opens in the front and trimmed with lace. Her signature is below the portrait in a decorative plaque and serves as its title.
Emma Abbott (1850-1891) was an American opera soprano whose popular appeal earned her the title "the People's Prima Donna." Born in Chicago, Illinois, she began studying music at an early age and made her debut as a singer and guitar player in Peoria, Illinois in 1859. Emma Abbott toured the Midwest professionally as a teenager and then moved to New York City, where she sang in the choir of the Universalist Church of the Divine Paternity. The congregation included wealthy members like P.T. Barnum, Horace Greeley and the Carnegies, and when Abbott left to study music in Europe, the church helped fund her efforts. She spent time in Milan and Paris before joining London's Royal Opera. She made her debut at Covent Garden in 1876. Her contract was canceled, however, when she refused to appear as the courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, claiming the character was immoral.
After returning to the New York stage, she and her husband Eugene Wetherell established the Abbott English Opera Company in 1878, which was said to be among the earliest American opera companies founded by a woman. Among the notable roles she sang with the company was Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Her company became known for charging low ticket prices, performing operas in English translation with abridged musical pieces, and introducing songs from hymns and other sources. She also made use of modern marketing techniques. Although attacked by critics for taking a lowbrow approach, Emma Abbott has been credited with helping expand the middle-class audience for opera. She continued to sing professionally until her death from pneumonia at the age of forty.
This lithograph was produced by the Graphic Company and John Gast (1842-1896). He was a painter, photomechanical printer, and lithographer who was born in Berlin, Germany, but spent much of his life in Brooklyn, New York. Gast was a pioneer in the use of three-color engraving and zinc etching. He was instrumental in establishing several businesses including the Gast Banknote and Lithograph Company (St. Louis); The New York Daily Graphic newspaper; Gast and Company Lithographers (Brooklyn); and the Photochrome Company. He became especially well known for his 1872 painting "American Progress," which depicts a white-robed woman carrying a book and telegraph wire, moving from the light skies of the East towards the dark and threatening clouds of the West. Pioneers, stagecoaches, covered wagons, and railroad cars accompany the woman, while Native Americans and buffalo run ahead of the newcomers. Widely circulated as a color lithograph, the painting has been described as an allegory for American Manifest Destiny and westward expansion.
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