Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 1, 1901: Woodrow Wilson to Howard Pyle

"Tory Refugees on their way to Canada" by Howard Pyle (1901)

Although the second collaboration of Howard Pyle and Woodrow Wilson was not as “intense” as the first (on “George Washington” in 1895-96), “Colonies and Nation” still generated a fair amount of correspondence. “It seems extremely pleasant to be writing to you again in collaboration of such interesting work,” Pyle wrote in the fall of 1900. “It was exceedingly pleasant to see your name on an envelope again,” concurred Wilson, and over the next six months at least a dozen letters (and certainly more than that, though they have yet to resurface) travelled between Wilmington and Princeton as the two hammered out what pictures would best suit the text. (Apparently, too, Wilson himself visited Pyle at his studio on the morning of December 7, 1900.)

“I remember in our work upon the History of the Life of Washington you specified your subjects and I upon my part after carefully reading the manuscript was allowed to give my ideas concerning them from the standpoint of an illustrator,” Pyle had reminded Wilson, not long after beginning his illustrations. That spring, while planning the last handful of pictures, Pyle asked if he could “amend” Wilson's list of subjects (which also hasn't yet surfaced) and paint “Washington refusing the offer to make him King” and a scene from Shays’ Rebellion as they “typify that period of Anarchy following the Revolutionary War so critical, apparently, to the life of the country.” Pyle also thought a depiction of Washington’s Inauguration would be appropriate. Here is Wilson’s answer, which shows the level of ease that had developed between the artist and writer:


Princeton, New Jersey,

1 April, 1901.

My dear Mr. Pyle,

I literally have not had ten minutes to consider your letter of March twenty-eighth until this morning. I hope that you will pardon the delay.

I like two of the subjects you suggest very much indeed, but not the first. I should think it a little dangerous, historically, to make a scene out of Washington’s refusal to be made dictator. It was really an incident of correspondence. I should fear that, in making a picture of it, we should be in danger of putting in too large an imaginative element.

I had rather set my heart on having you do a group of emigrating loyalists in the northern forests, a subject that appeals greatly to the imagination; or one of your delightful character sketches of a rural group (this time on the western frontier) debating Jay's treaty.

The scene from Shays' rebellion and the inauguration of Washington I entirely like.

In haste,

With warm regard,

Sincerely Yours,

Woodrow Wilson


In the end, Pyle did not paint Washington refusing to be made king, nor a scene from Shays’ Rebellion (though he had, indeed, depicted these two subjects in the 1880s), and his picture of the inauguration only appeared when Wilson’s papers were collected in book form. But his “Tory Refugees on their way to Canada” (above) and “A Political Discussion” appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine for December 1901.

And here is Wilson's original letter...


Anonymous said...

You say here that HP never painted the scene of Shays' Rebellion, but such a thing does appear on the Web in various places, such as this: Do you know if it was ever published or put into the public domain in any form? I have always admired Pyle, and I am eager to use the image as an illustration in a forthcoming text. Thanks, Peter H. Wood

Ian Schoenherr said...

Sorry, I should have been more clear: although Pyle didn’t paint a scene from Shays’ Rebellion for Wilson’s history, he had indeed already painted one for Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “The Birth of a Nation” published in Harper’s Monthly for January 1884.

Christie's sold the original in 2008. I don’t know who bought it, but you could always ask them where it went or if they have a good transparency or scan of it.

If that’s too much of a bother, I’d be happy to send you a good scan of the engraving from the magazine - which is in the public domain. Just let me know!