Tuesday, June 21, 2011

“The Doll Has Goitre” and Other Criticisms of Howard Pyle

Figure 1. “Her whisper was so soft he only guessed the words“ from "The Stairway of Honor" by Maud Stepney Rawson in Harper's Monthly Magazine for January 1904

One might think that Howard Pyle was universally lauded during his lifetime. But he had his critics. John K. Hoyt was one, and his stinging - yet amusing - long letter to The New York Times was printed on October 22, 1904. I've reprinted it in full, below, and - in case you don’t have scattered issues of Harper’s Monthly Magazine for 1904 at your elbow - I’ve inserted the illustrations to which Hoyt refers.

Mr. Pyle’s Illustrations

New York Times Book Review:

I wonder if the great periodicals of the day have art censors on their staffs. This thought occurs on seeing so much poor work in many of their illustrations. Take Harper's Monthly Magazine, for example. For some time it has been publishing illustrations in color by Mr. Howard Pyle. Mr. Pyle’s reputation stands high, and deservedly so. He can do good work, and he should keep his contributions up to the standard for excellence; but some of his drawings are distinctly bad. Not only that, but they are irrelevant to the story he attempts to illustrate. For instance, take the short story in the January number entitled "The Stairway of Honor." The hero, an artist, is a gentleman, and endowed with a keen sense of honor, while the heroine is a lady of high degree; in short a Duchess, and is very beautiful. Now turn to the frontispiece [Figure 1] - and behold! a man and woman with the faces of peasants, while that of the woman is weak and ugly, the very reverse of the woman described in the story. Both are deformed. Compare the man’s short arm and shriveled hand with his abnormal breadth of shoulder. Look at the woman's arms - both too short - and her misshapen body and her general air of awkwardness. The color in this picture is good, the drawing bad.

Figure 2. “He found Mélite alone” from “The Story of Adhelmar” by James Branch Cabell in Harper's Monthly Magazine for April 1904

In the April number the place of honor - the frontispiece [Figure 2] - is again assigned to Mr. Pyle. Here we have a wooden image sitting, garbed in the habiliments of a woman, with a heavy mat of jute, in lieu of hair, falling from her head to her waist. The figure is devoid of any lines indicative of feminine grace; it might be the figure of a boy - a wooden boy. The arms in those sleeves are not made of flesh and bones and muscle, but of good solid oak. The expression of the face betokens intense, sullen stupidity. A knight clad in armor stands in the doorway, leaning against the jamb for support, evidently bereft of strength - as well he may be - at the ugliness of the thing.

Figure 3. “He sang for her as they sat in the gardens” from “The Story of Adhelmar” by James Branch Cabell in Harper's Monthly Magazine for April 1904

Another illustration in this number, facing Page 706 [Figure 3], represents a woman with a faded, washed-out face; a silly, simpering face; and whose right side has been developed at the expense of the left. And then, while gazing, one is stricken with deep compassion, as he perceives that this poor creature has curvature of the spine, and he wonders how, under the circumstances, she can even simper. In this figure also there are no lines to indicate the sex. These two compositions are enough to drive the luckless author of “The Story of Adhelmar” frantic. And if he has survived the sight of them, he is doubtless now going about in quest of the artist and thirsting for his gore.

When it comes to art let, us be aesthetic or nothing. Let us change the titles of these two compositions and, after the manner of Whistler, call the first "A Nightmare in Blue," and the other "A Simper in White."

Figure 4. “Catherine de Vaucelles, in her garden” from “In Necessity’s Mortar” by James Branch Cabell in Harper's Monthly Magazine for October 1904

Turn to the frontispiece in the October number [Figure 4]. Here we have the picture of a Japanese doll, and - was ever such a thing heard of? - the doll has goitre. Not as yet a fully developed case; but it’s there, and is quite pronounced. The face is a blank wall; but there - dolls’ faces generally are devoid of expression. Some of the material left over from constructing the gown has been utilised in building a mouth. Was the moon an afterthought? It would seem so, for it is not night. Apple blossoms don't look like that by moonlight; neither does a red dress. At any rate, putting the moon there was a lucky hit - we might almost say an inspiration - for it draws the eye away from the doll-faced woman.

Figure 5. "Villon - The singer Fate fashioned to her liking" from “In Necessity’s Mortar” by James Branch Cabell in Harper's Monthly Magazine for October 1904

Figure 6. "The King himself hauled me out of gaol" from “In Necessity’s Mortar” by James Branch Cabell in Harper's Monthly Magazine for October 1904

Now turn to the pictures facing Pages 706 [Figure 5] and 708 [Figure 6] in this number. What a difference! Here we have good work, work that any artist might well be proud of. No uncertain touches here, no feeble lines; but good, strong drawing, and the colors laid on with the brush of a master. Mr. Pyle's backgrounds are almost always rich in color, harmonious, and effective.

I wonder why his men are so well drawn, while his women generally are not. Evidently he does not draw women from the model. Turn again to the illustration facing Page 706 in the April number [Figure 5]; compare the drawing in the figure of the man with that in the figure of the woman. Was there ever such incongruity? That of the man shows that it was drawn by an artist of the twentieth century who understands his work, while that of the woman might have been done at the time in which the story is laid, in the fourteenth century, or, rather, in justice to the artists of that time, let us say, during the paleolithic age.

Figure 7. "The drawing of the sword" from “The Sword of Ahab” by James Edmund Dunning in Harper's Monthly Magazine for August 1904

I said, I wonder why his men are drawn so well. They are not always. Turn, for instance, to the picture facing Page 335 in the August number [Figure 7]. The drawing in the figure of the man is bad. The lines are feeble, uncertain. His right shoulder is dislocated, caused doubtless - and it serves him right - by his efforts to draw the sword in that awkward and unheard-of fashion. The writer of the story fails to mention this accident; neither does he account for the presence in the picture of what is evidently an effigy from some modern wayside shrine in Italy. This only goes to show that an artist should exercise the utmost care in selecting an author to write up his pictures.

I do not claim that all women are beautiful, or that all of them have perfect figures; and if an artist chooses to portray them as ugly and deformed, he is clearly within his rights; but I maintain that when an artist is assigned to illustrating a story, he should place himself en rapport, if possible, with the author; should try to enter into his feelings, see with his eyes, depict the characters as they are described. And above all things, if the heroine is beautiful, let him make her beautiful - if he can.

Candler, North Carolina

Me (Ian Schoenherr) again:

Mr. Hoyt makes some good points: Pyle’s women, with a few exceptions, truly are the “weaker sex” - idealized, anemic, and bland. And, as the years went on, while Pyle’s pictures grew more vibrant in color, sometimes his figures lacked good construction and his compositions were oversimplified.

For the record, “the luckless author,” James Branch Cabell, thought Pyle’s illustrations for “The Story of Adhelmar“ were “magnificent.” But I never much liked “He found Mélite alone”
[Figure 2] and “He sang for her as they sat in the gardens” [Figure 3] - or the third illustration, not shown. Too, the figures in "The drawing of the sword" from “The Sword of Ahab” leave something to be desired - although the setting, costumes, and color are pretty interesting.

do like “Her whisper was so soft he only guessed the words“ [Figure 1] for its weird lighting, color, and atmosphere. The “faces of peasants” don’t bother me, but then again I’m descended from such “ugly” people.

Who knows if Pyle ever took note of Hoyt’s letter. He wrote later about “the futility of following such memoranda” and said, “Where they intend to praise they always miss the point, and where they intend to dispraise they leave, even though you know the dispraise does not amount to anything, a feeling of unpleasantness.”


kev ferrara said...

David Mamet once said of critics that when they criticize, they know so little about the actual craft of writing plays that they can't actually help the author in his work. The criticism isn't constructive.

And praise, which by its nature contains no information that would improve the author, is equally useless.

That said, some of the points in this critique are fair. Maybe Pyle was like Joseph Clement Coll, who used male models but preferred to draw the women of his dreams.

Some decent Pyles here I've never seen before. Also some that I really do not like and not just because of the badly drawn women.

Hard to believe the Times published the whole letter. Did they have it in for Pyle? Were they trying to fill up empty pages?

The version of The King Himself Hauled Me Out... is much brighter than any versions I've seen. I always thought the background was just a dark hole. Proving quite succinctly that at least some of Pyle's picture definitely darkened. That's one of my minor favorites.


Ian Schoenherr said...

Well, it was a pretty verbose era (even compared to this one) - and the letter appeared in the Times’ “Saturday Review of Books and Art” - which had room for such discourse.

"The King himself hauled me out of gaol" is great in so many ways and is certainly my favorite of the bunch (with Villon and "Her whisper was so soft” vying for second place). And it must have been one of Pyle’s favorites, too, since he included it (as “The Poet and the King”) in at least two of his cherry-picked one-man shows. Harpers paid him $250 for it and it sold at Sotheby’s in 1996 for $118,000.

Meanwhile, “Villon - The singer Fate fashioned to her liking" sold at Sotheby’s in 2003 for $23,000. A relative bargain.