Published: December 27, 2011
When asked how he began a new project, eminent illustrator Howard Pyle replied, “First, I throw in my heart, then I dive in after it.” That intense involvement in the images he created and commitment to action and accuracy were hallmarks of the compelling art and brilliant teaching of the Father of American Illustration.
Although doubtful at times, Pyle (1853‱911) was generally convinced of the importance of his work. “A wider impression can be made upon the world of American art through book illustration,” he said, “than through any other medium.”
A national celebrity in his time, Pyle’s images of historical figures, knights and pirates in books and mass circulation periodicals were admired by authors and emulated by artists. A generation of his students became famous artists and instructors who disseminated his disciplined philosophy of illustration. Between the late 1870s and his death in 1911, Pyle’s published pictures were viewed by many thousands of Americans, making him a major contributor to the nation’s visual culture.
In spite of his widespread popularity and enormous influence in his field, Pyle is absent from histories of American art and little known today among the general public. Pyle’s works hang in major museums, but he is hardly a household name like Norman Rockwell, who greatly admired him.
Marking the centennial of Pyle’s death as well as the 100th anniversary of its founding, the Delaware Art Museum organized “Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered,” on view through March 4. The exhibition presents fresh perspectives on Pyle’s familiar illustrations, exploring his relationships with the art and culture of his day and seeking to reposition him within the broader spectrum of Nineteenth Century American art. As museum executive director Danielle Rice observes, “While Pyle continues to be revered&⁛in the Delaware Valley] and still inspires illustrators and filmmakers, his work nevertheless has been ignored by traditional art history. This makes it both appropriate and necessary to reexamine Pyle’s contribution to the history of art.”
The show underscores how Pyle’s astute approach to the art of illustration was developed through careful study of the art of his time, which he experienced in both original form and through illustrated magazines, books and prints. Pyle’s paintings are displayed in the show alongside related works by contemporary American and European artists to document these fine art crosscurrents.
Pyle was born in Wilmington to Quaker parents who became affiliated with the Swedenborgian church when he was a youngster. His family’s roots, deep in the region, stretched back to a land grant from William Penn.
For three years, starting at age 16, Pyle commuted to Philadelphia to study with Dutch academic painter Francis Van der Wielen. Later, while working in his father’s Wilmington leather business, he attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
After submitting illustrated stories to various periodicals, in 1876 Pyle’s first work was published in Scribner’s Monthly. He soon moved to New York, the national hub of art and publishing, where he enrolled at the Art Students League and established himself as a professional illustrator. He got to know authors, editors, engravers and artists like William Merritt Chase and J. Alden Weir. Throughout his career, Pyle sought to adapt his style to meet the needs of book and magazine reproductions and to create work that responded to changing technological and aesthetic challenges of illustration.
After three years, he returned to Wilmington, recognized as a successful illustrator. Between magazine assignments, he wrote and illustrated children’s books about Robin Hood, King Arthur and pirates. Unhappy with the uneven quality of color illustrations in publications, he utilized black and white woodcuts, influenced by Sixteenth Century German artist Albrecht Dürer, to enliven such books as Otto of the Silver Hand, 1888. Illustrations such as “Poor Brother John Came Forward and Took the Boy’s Hand” and “Away they rode with clashing hoofs and ringing armor” document Pyle’s early mastery of narrative and composition. As Delaware Museum curator of American art Heather Campbell Coyle puts it, “His pictures tell a story convincingly, while demonstrating a strong sense of pattern and an obvious pleasure in drawing.”
Pyle developed an intense process whereby he made as many as 50 preliminary sketches of proposed pictures before completing them in oil. While keeping in mind that the story was paramount, he placed emphasis on the aesthetics of composition †simple tonality, strong contrasts of light and shadow, elimination of nonessential elements and the organization of figures and faces. He left it to viewers to sort out the different people in the clustered line racing toward the viewer in “We Started to Run Back to the Raft for Our Lives,” for example. His dramatic depiction of Roman gladiators locked in combat in the foreground with the amphitheater crowd looking on in the background resembles Frenchman Jean-Leon Gerome’s composition of the same subject matter.
As the Gerome connection suggests, Pyle “studied both old masters and contemporary art for the compositional, stylistic and philosophical elements that might suit his work at hand,” says Delaware Museum chief curator Margaretta S. Frederick. “With this information, he produced thoroughly original, entirely American works of art.”
In 1881, Pyle married Anne Poole, a widow. They had seven children and often vacationed at Rehoboth Beach, Del. For several decades, Pyle wrote and illustrated notable books about the adventures of vigorous and villainous pirates. He confessed, “I have always had a strong liking for pirates and highwaymen, for gunpowder smoke and for good hard blows.”
Characters to be envied and feared, pirates became hero-villains in Pyle’s depictions. “The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow,” 1905, illustrating a Harper’s story, shows the pirate as a handsome, swashbuckling fellow wearing the fruits of his thievery, gold loops in his ears.
Ever the stickler for realism, Pyle had buckets of water thrown on the figure modeling for “The Flying Dutchman,” 1900, to simulate the pirate’s predicament on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Pyle made the lonely, weaponless pirate, sitting dejectedly on a barren beach under threatening skies, almost poignant in “Marooned,” 1909.
Overall, the derring-do and fabled riches acquired by Pyle’s pirates made them appealing figures to Americans struggling through uncertain economic times. But the artist was careful to use pirate stories as cautionary tales †examples of how moral breakdown can threaten peaceful societies.
Pyle’s fairy tales and children’s illustrations reflected his knowledge of such British illustrators as Kate Greenaway. His depictions of the world of make-believe, utilizing his usual illustrating principles, continue to be highly popular.
He also achieved great success in writing and illustrating tales of medieval times, notably his four-volume life of King Arthur, which used text and illustrations to complement each other and influenced all subsequent treatments of the subject, especially by Schoonover and Wyeth. Pyle imparted a democratic, American twist to his illustrations. As Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack write in the catalog, “Pyle’s concern with moral and democratic values, his delight in the exercise of the pictorial imagination, his ability to connect with his young audience †all are evident in his Arthurian book illustrations, which remain among the best known and most accessible of Twentieth Century Arthurian images and which have inspired generations of readers.”
Pyle’s keen interest in American history formed illustrations for Henry Cabot Lodge’s The Story of the American Revolution, 1898, first serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. To create strong evocations of the nation’s Founding Fathers and important military engagements, he studied various compositional devices, visited battlefields and collected period objects for use as props. Admiring this dedication to authenticity, Rockwell called Pyle “a historian with a brush.” “Pyle’s lively historical illustrations,” writes Coyle, “were so popular in part because his vision of bygone days was effectively filtered through the art and culture of his own time.”
The artist’s careful research of the house and mastery of details of Washington’s attack on Cliveden, an Eighteenth Century Philadelphia mansion occupied by British troops, ensured accuracy and draws viewers into the chaos and immediacy of the action in “The Attack upon the Chew House,” for Lodge’s book.
For his heroic depiction of Washington’s “Retreat Through the Jerseys,” he drew on a well-known image of Napoleon’s withdrawal by French painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Both show the leader on a white horse, leading bedraggled troops along snowy, deeply rutted roads, but Pyle’s conveys a more energetic, optimistic tone.
Although clearly indebted to Meissonier for some of his compositions, Pyle frequently voiced concern about America’s continued dependence on European art for styles and subjects. “Why have we no national art?” he asked.
Pyle advocated practical instruction, as opposed to Parisian academic training, stressing composition and drawing from life models, like the program he instituted at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute, 1894‱900. After that he opened his own school of illustration in Wilmington, with summer classes in nearby Chadds Ford, Penn. A popular and inspiring teacher, Pyle drilled his pupils on the importance of visual authenticity, first-hand observation of subject matter and responsiveness of illustrations to text. He “established standards of excellence in illustration for his own and following generations,” observes retiring Brandywine River Museum director James H. Duff.
Among the top illustrators to emerge from Pyle’s stimulating, unregimented, tuition-free classes: Stanley Arthurs, Harvey Dunn, Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith, Frank Schoonover and N.C. Wyeth. Particularly at the outset of their careers, they benefited from Pyle’s ability to connect them with publishers.
Toward the end of his career, Pyle, like his star pupil Wyeth, questioned the lasting value of illustration work. Several of his last paintings, including the luminous and mysterious “The Mermaid,” 1910, and his evocation of loneliness, “Marooned,” 1909, were created as easel paintings. “In the end,” says author/illustrator James Guthrie, “the enduring artistic legacy of both Pyle and Wyeth is rooted in their work for the printed page.”
Along with his busy schedule illustrating books and magazines, Pyle sought new challenges by accepting commissions for murals. To hone his muralist skills, he traveled to Italy, intent on studying Italian masterpieces. He died a year later, of Bright’s disease in Florence.
Pyle’s death was widely mourned by the art world and the artist’s legion of fans. The Wilmington Evening Journal lamented, “Not in a thousand years is Delaware likely to produce another such genius.”
After a memorial exhibition of Pyle’s art in Delaware, organizers purchased a large number of works from his widow. They formed the core of the collection of what is now the Delaware Art Museum.
Work of the Studio Group, local artists who maintain the former Howard Pyle Studios in Wilmington, is showcased in a complementary show through January 15.
Pyle emerges from this grand exhibition as a thoughtful and astute artist who educated many of America’s finest illustrators †and himself produced some of the best illustrations of the Golden Age of American illustration. While most of his paintings were created for reproduction, there is no substitute for seeing the original oils; as his grandson Howard Pyle Brokaw once wrote, “They can stand eloquently alone, independent of their text.”
A century after his death, Pyle’s major books for children remain in print, his historical images continue to grace textbooks and book covers, his pirates live on in movies and, particularly in Wilmington and at the Brandywine River Museum, his paintings still wow visitors. His efforts to forge a distinctively American school of art freed from European models helped change the course of American art.
The exhibition travels to the Norman Rockwell Museum, June 9⁓eptember 28. The 191-page illustrated catalog contains essays by a variety of experts and is published by Delaware Art Museum and distributed by University of Pennsylvania Press. It sells for $45, softcover.
The Delaware Museum is at 2301 Kentmere Parkway. For information, www.delart.org or 302-571-9590.
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