On May 2, 1909, a syndicated article appeared in newspapers across the United States. The writer was James B. Morrow and the subject was Howard Pyle, who Morrow had interviewed earlier that spring (the published piece has a Wilmington dateline of April 26, but Morrow copyrighted it on April 20).
Readers of the The Boston Sunday Globe, St. Louis Globe Democrat, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Herald, among other papers, got to “see” and “hear” a 56-year-old, paint-spattered Pyle, as he “nervously” rocked in a rocking chair and pontificated about art and reminisced about his early life. It was an odd time for him, though: he was at the height of his powers - or, rather, somewhat past the height - and professional disappointments were on the rise. Not only was he wearying of illustration and of teaching, but his desire to transition into a muralist had, so far, been thwarted: he had completed his last commission over two years earlier, and although he was preparing a sketch for a $50,000 mural project, it would meet with severe criticism - and ultimately be abandoned - not long after this article appeared.
Of course, Pyle did have a few aces up his sleeve. Two of the pictures that Morrow may have seen at the studio were the masterpiece, “The Midnight Court Martial,” as well as "Who are we that Heaven should make of the old sea a fowling net?" which came out in Harper’s Monthly for September and October 1909, respectively.
“The Midnight Court Martial” by Howard Pyle (1909)
“Who are we that Heaven should make of the old sea a fowling net?” by Howard Pyle (1909)
Parts of this interview have been quoted here and there, but, as far as I know, this is the first time it’s been reprinted in toto in 102 years.
Howard Pyle's Pictures Grow
by James B. Morrow
In spirit, execution, education, interest, healthfulness and color the concise reply reflected the man - the shoulders of whose coat were thickly daubed with sky-blue and yellow paints - and the studio in which he works. There was a noticeable influence of sincerity and business in the artist and his shop.
Bursting vines, green and gray, clung like monstrous cobwebs to the red walls outside. I observed them as I lifted the brass knocker on the upper half door and let it drop. The building looked fresh and English, suggesting the snug harbor of an author or an architect. The walk of brick upward from the street had a turn and finish that rescued it from commonness. Distinction, once a rare and courtly word, associated with scholars and statesmen, but now a popular noun of tailors and shoemakers when they describe their goods was impressed upon the place.
Inside I saw pictures on easels, completed or half done, colonial tables and chests and models of ancient ships. Howard Pyle, the world’s most famous illustrator, it may be, and a novelist as well, came booming across the room - booming in the sense of energy and not in the matter of audible noise.
Long hair and languishing look? No; short hair and gray, virtually white, where the magnificent head has any hair at all. A tall man with long, straight legs, coils of springs in his feet, eyes blue as a fog, a small mouth, bland, but massive and singularly youthful face, and immense gold spectacles. In vestments he would look like a slashing bishop of the church. A red wig and a short sword; music, high lights and a stage, and behold! Julius Caesar. On the stump, pleading for his party or himself, a hurricane and a winner.
We sit in plain rocking chairs of wood under a great window in the roof. Pyle talks easily and swiftly. He has written books, lectured about art, and in curt sentences and jerky pauses has disciplined young artists who have begged his judgment on their work. He has the gifts of expression, imagination, and style. Furthermore, he would have succeeded at the bar or prospered in a bank.
“For the world which cannot comprehend,” I said, “will you obligingly explain what is meant by those cryptic words, ‘an artistic temperament?’”
“I should say,” and Howard Pyle ceased his nervous rocking for a moment, “that there is no such vice or human quality as an artistic temperament. It is a phrase and nothing more, which is employed to cover a good many delinquencies. Artists, studying the beautiful, want it; but beauty costs money. The teller in the bank, counting in your deposits and money and paying them out, ventures upon a little speculation of his own in Wall st. When he is caught his lawyer would ridicule his case were he to plead any sort of a temperament, artistic or otherwise. Yet, the analogy I draw is not inconsistent. We desire the thing which we specialize in our work and interest.
“Men in my profession sometimes undertake that which is beyond their means. There is a house or a picture, or a rug, or some pottery. It is bought imprudently. Debts press, and duns, if repeated often enough, engender carelessness. Then comrades and admirers, bearing the flimsy mantle called ‘artistic temperament,’ try to hide the follies of the offender against thrift and the elementary principles of sound business. Eminent singers and actors, up during all hours of the night and eating indigestible suppers, are bad tempered the next day. There is an out burst, a cup thrown at a waiter, for instance, followed by more or less nonsensical comment concerning the eccentricities of genius.
“A successful artist,” Howard Pyle continued, “is just like any other successful man - conservative, provident and normal,” he declared. “He does his work and takes care of himself and his credit. Titian, the Venetian, industrious and ambitious, had ministers and kings for his friends and companions. Leonardo da Vinci, whose ‘Last Supper,’ the wall painting at Milan, has made him immortal, was a brilliant architect, sculptor, engineer, scientist and musician. Raphael, tremendously practical, was not only the architect of St. Peter’s, but was an able archeologist and an authority on the antiquities of Rome. Michaelangelo wrote poetry, drew plans for splendid buildings and was one of the most learned anatomists of his time. The ‘old masters’ were sensible men. So are the young masters, whether they be artists, lawyers, doctors or preachers. Nor is any great achievement the completed effort of an inspired instant. Nothing worth while is done without toil, and toil compels one to be sober minded and careful.”
“Candidly,” I said, “what is your opinion of the paintings of the ‘old masters?’”
“That their best work is unequaled. However, many of their pictures, notwithstanding the veneration of subsequent generations, are inferior in quality. An artist or a writer is measured by his best work. Even the old masters were human and were not free from the limitations and infirmities of the rest of mankind. It is sufficient that their greatest work at its greatest is among the greatest in the world.”
“Is art making any headway in the United States?” I inquired.
“Splendid headway,” Mr. Pyle answered enthusiastically. “Consider my own art of illustration. The magazines are spending millions of dollars for pictures; enough each year, I dare say, to build a battleship. Are they spending it to indulge a sentiment? Do they want something pretty for themselves? Not at all. They are hardheaded men of business and have long since discovered that the people want and demand the best pictures that are obtainable. Why is Minnesota spending an immense sum of money for a state building and paying many thousands of dollars to mural artists? Why do we see pictures, cut from periodicals, hung in almost every American home? Why do manufacturers, even of those calendars that are given away, attempt to make of them works of art? Why does a business man hire the best artist he can find and pay him $500 or $1000 for a painting to advertise his wares? All along the line art is making progress in America; in no other country of the world are pictures of every kind so much appreciated.”
“What is the yearly income of a good magazine illustrator?”
“I would not attempt to give figures,” Mr. Pyle answered, “although they are often printed - generally with exaggeration - in the newspapers. The published earnings of an artist are nearly always like the estimate of a rich man’s estate before his death - a trifle magnified. Maybe illustrators are not paid so handsomely as are other men of relative rank in their professions, yet, doubtless, their remuneration is sufficient.
“I suppose art offers its own rewards outside of its money returns,” Mr. Pyle went on to say. “It must be many youngsters to embark in a profession that promises so few prizes and so many planks. Since I began my professional career - that was more than 30 years ago - I imagine that at least 150,000 persons have studied art in this country. Out of that vast army of men and women not 150 have attained to fame and material success.
“Illustrating, especially, is difficult, because an illustrator is compelled to tell something, or to make an appeal that will reach a million people. He must, of course, be an artist in the technical knowledge of drawing and the use of colors. Besides he must have originality and imagination. Many young artists, splendidly equipped with technical knowledge, carry their illustrations to publishers only to meet with disappointment because their work would make no impression on the hearts or the intelligence of the public.”
“Are not some of the pictures in weekly and monthly publications,” I asked, “reproductions of paintings made expressly for the purpose?”
“I suppose all illustrations are intended to illustrate a text. The best illustrations, however, are those that stand and are used upon their own intrinsic excellence. They are, or should be, copied colors and all, as nearly as possible by mechanical processes. The magazine pays for the use of such paintings. If the paintings are important they are returned to the artists. Many of the originals sell at very good prices.”
“I have been told that students at your art school pay no tuition and that no one ever comes here except with your consent previously given?”
“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Pyle replied, “I am not running an art school. About 30 young students have settled in Wilmington, and more would be here if they could find studio accommodations. We have what might be called a little art settlement, community. The artists are privileged to come to me every morning at 9 o’clock for suggestions and for criticisms of their work. I make no charge, of course, for such service. Formerly, I lectured each Monday evening, but now I have a class in composition on Saturday evenings.”
“You have never visited Europe, professionally,” I said, knowing that Mr. Pyle is distinctively an American in all his work - painting, illustrating, and writing - and the founder of a recognized system of national art.
“I have never visited Europe in any capacity, either as a student or a traveller,” Mr. Pyle answered. “As a young man I had a fine opportunity to study abroad as long as I desired. The person who made the offer only required that I should send him a painting once a year. But I was then hard at work and felt that it would not be progression to lose time again as a student. Since then I have been busy and have felt no need of Europe.”
“Will you give me a picture of your development as an artist?” I said.
“Yes, quite willingly, if you want it, though I cannot get your point of view in journeying to Wilmington for so unimportant a matter. My earliest childhood was lived in a quaint old house of the colonial period not far from this city. I am glad to say that my mother had an intelligent and sympathetic appreciation of art and literary values, and her influence formed and shaped my earliest studies. She habitually read to us from the best literature of the day, which, in 1860, was very good indeed. The leading periodicals came into our house, Punch among the rest. Tom Taylor was one of the contributors, and Cornhill Magazine, of which Thackeray was then editor. Dickens, Scott and Shakespere are good foundations for a sound literary taste. When I took up a book myself it was apt to be Grimm’s fairy stories. Such was our family life indoors. Outside there was an old garden in which grew many roses, so many that we picked them by the bushel and made rose water after the ancient and customary formula.
“I attended a good school in Wilmington, and remember that I was fond of drawing pictures, but was not a precocious youngster in any sense or manner. Plenty of other boys drew as well and even better. Still, I liked to draw and write. One spring, I recollect, when the birds were singing in the trees and the flowers were blooming, and the restlessness and longings of the season were stirring in my heart, that I went to an old ivy-covered rock near home to compose a poem. I took pencil and paper along, but after I had seated myself amid the ivy I remembered that I had not yet learned to read or write.
“At the age of 16 I left home to be a student at a private art school in Philadelphia. The school was kept by a man [F. A. Van der Wielen] who won a gold medal at Antwerp, the center, perhaps, of the most technical art in Europe. I remained three years in Philadelphia, getting a vast fund of information and a wide knowledge of the purely practical or professional side of drawing. I studied anatomy under Dr William W. Keene [sic], the now famous surgeon and medical author, and liked it immensely. My technical was so good that I could draw the nude figure without a model - and could draw it accurately, too. Throughout my life I have been a fast worker, one of the results, perhaps, of my early training in Philadelphia.
“But I was not taught how to apply my knowledge. The imagination was not trained. We followed hard and fast rules on the theory that pictures were made by technical knowledge. I could draw - anyone can learn to do that - but young as I was, I soon found that execution alone, no matter how skilful, cannot make a picture that the world cares for. Any man of education can learn to write correctly, but it is only the very few who can gain and hold the interest of the public.
“My work lay idle for several years while I experimented. Finally - it was in 1876 - I wrote a verse about a magic pill that instantly turned an aged person, namely a person fretting over his years, into a terrible boy. It was illustrated by some crude drawings in pen and ink. I sent it to the Century Magazine, then called Scribner’s, and, to my joy, it was accepted for a department called, I think, ‘Bric-a-Brac.’ Then my mother read about a drove of wild ponies on an island off the coast of Virginia. At her suggestion, I went to the island and put the ponies into an illustrated story. Several other little compositions were taken at about the same time, and so I decided to move to New York and try my luck at making a living.
“No great ambition was in my mind. Ordinarily, the usual young man, at first, has only modest aspirations. He goes forward by steps, each one a little higher, his development being altogether natural, until he achieves that which lies latent in his mind at the beginning. I had done small things and vaguely hoped for larger ones, but made no effort to look very far into the future. It is well that youth is sightless and trustful. If its grasp were too wide when it starts on the journey of life, if it could comprehend everything that is to come, it would reach for all, only to lose even that which it has.
“New York, then as now, was the richest market in the world for ideas. Its first and loudest call is for imagination. I preach imagination at every opportunity, because it is not only the chief pillar in the structure of art, but the corner stone of all success. In those first days of my young endeavor I wrote verses and sketches and illustrated them with pictures. They were disposed of without many disappointments to magazines and weekly publications.
“Compositions containing a new or unique idea, such, for instance, as a young fellow standing on the shoulders of a monk and passing a valentine through a window to a pretty girl, were sold easily and at good prices. Editors did not insist upon “strong” ideas in those days; anything would do that was “original.” Some of my suggestions were roughly put on paper to be developed by experienced artists on the periodicals to which they were sent. All in all I did well, making $25 some weeks and in others as much as $50. I left my cheap lodgings and, with a couple of friends, took a studio, working and sleeping there, but eating at a restaurant.
“I had been in New York for a year and a half, perhaps, when I painted my first important picture. It was called ‘A Wreck in the Offing.’ A crew of a life saving station were in a room playing cards.
“I knew that the idea was worth at least $15, even if the picture were rejected. But I neglected to consider that the art editor might be absent. It was a shock, there fore, when I found that he had gone home for the day. However, I left the picture.
“Walking back to my studio, miles away, I stopped to see Frederick Church, who was always kind to young artists, but I could not bring myself to the point of letting him know that I was penniless. I told the young men who shared my studio that I was ill and had lost my appetite. But when they had gone to the restaurant I searched my old clothing and found a half dollar; it paid for my dinner that night, my breakfast next morning, and my car fare back to Harper’s.
“My nerves were on edge when at last I faced the art editor. My picture, big as a house, was standing on his desk. I felt sure, the minute I saw it, that it had been declined. ‘Mr. Harper,’ the art editor said, ‘has looked at your picture and likes it. Indeed, he intends to give it a double page in the Weekly.’
“Since that eventful morning,” Mr. Pyle continued, “my ways have been in pleasant places. I was paid $75 for ‘The Wreck in the Offing,’ and the first thing I did was to take a friend to Delmonico’s for luncheon. I want to add that I thought I foresaw the time when illustrating would be a very important part of art life in this country. I never lost confidence in my early judgment and I am glad I have lived to see American illustrating a dignified and major factor in our national art evolution.”
“Why did you leave New York and come back to Wilmington?”
“I found the diversions in New York too many and attractive for sustained and serious effort. When I made up my mind to move I didn’t linger, but packed my effects and bought a ticket.”
“Do you see the completed picture before you begin to paint it?”
“No; if I did, my work, I fear, would be without much value. A picture, and it is the same with a book or a business, must grow under the hand that creates it. A general idea of the intended picture exists in the mind - sometimes quite vividly - but it only develops into a form when it is outlined and it only takes final shape as it is executed upon the canvas. It is the same in a literary production. A writer knows in a general way what he intends to say, but the work develops as he progresses in its execution. At the end the characters and the story are usually altogether different from the author’s conception at the beginning.”
“How do you work and when do you play?”
“I come to my studio in the morning and stay until 6 o’clock in the summer and so long as I can see in the winter. When I shut the door of this building I shut my mind to paint, pencils and pictures. I don’t think of art except when I am here. I don’t talk it. I stand up while I work and that is all the physical exercise I ever get. My recreation is found in the social life of the fine old city of Wilmington, and it is equal to the best in the United States.”