Saturday, June 4, 2011

“I think myself they are among the best”

“Blackbeard's last fight” by Howard Pyle (1894)

Finally, some pirates.

On June 4, 1894, Howard Pyle sent the last two illustrations for Jack Ballister’s Fortunes to William Fayal Clarke, his editor at St. Nicholas Magazine. His pirate novel for children was then running in installments and these two pictures wouldn’t appear until the issues of July and September 1895. Both were painted in black and white oil on academy board (probably made by Devoe & Co.) about 10 x 15 or 16".

Pyle seems to have begun these after May 16, 1894, the day he sent in the three preceding pictures - or maybe even after the 17th, when he and Clarke discussed the final four subjects over lunch in New York - or maybe - and perhaps more likely - after May 25, when he replied to a letter from Clarke, who had a few concerns about them.

“I hope you will like these drawings,” Pyle wrote to Clarke on June 4. “I think myself they are among the best, especially the fight, in which I have studiously thrown Blackbeard somewhat in the background.”

And that’s the curious thing about the painting: we see comparatively little of Blackbeard, whose braided-bearded face, with a dagger clutched between his teeth, is dead center, yet partially obscured by the cuff of the dark-jacketed Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Here is Pyle’s long description of the chaotic scene:
Lieutenant Maynard, as he called out the order, ran forward through the smoke, snatching one of his pistols out of his pocket and the cutlass out of its sheath as he did so. Behind him, the men were coming, swarming up from below. There was a sudden stunning report of a pistol, and then another and another, almost together. There was a groan and the fall of a heavy body, and then a figure came jumping over the rail, with two or three more directly following. The lieutenant was in the midst of the gunpowder smoke, when suddenly Blackbeard was before him. The pirate captain had stripped himself naked to the waist. His shaggy black hair was falling over his eyes, and he looked like a demon fresh from the pit, with his frantic face. Almost with the blindness of instinct, the lieutenant thrust out his pistol, firing it as he did so. The pirate staggered back: He was down - no; he was up again. He had a pistol in each hand; but there was a stream of blood running down his naked ribs. Suddenly, the mouth of a pistol was pointing straight at the lieutenant's head. He ducked instinctively, striking upward with his cutlass as he did so. There was a stunning, deafening report almost in his ear. He struck again blindly with his cutlass. He saw the flash of a sword and flung up his guard almost instinctively, meeting the crash of the descending blade. Somebody shot from behind him, and at the same moment he saw someone else strike the pirate. Blackbeard staggered again, and this time there was a great gash upon his neck. Then one of Maynard's own men tumbled headlong upon him. He fell with the man, but almost instantly he had scrambled to his feet again, and as he did so he saw that the pirate sloop had drifted a little away from them, and that their grappling-iron had evidently parted. His hand was smarting as though struck with the lash of a whip. He looked around him; the pirate captain was nowhere to be seen - yes, there he was, lying by the rail. He raised himself upon his elbow, and the lieutenant saw that he was trying to point a pistol at him, with an arm that wavered and swayed blindly, the pistol nearly falling from his fingers. Suddenly, his other elbow gave way, and he fell down upon his face. He tried to raise himself - he fell down again. There was a report and a cloud of smoke, and when it cleared away Blackbeard had staggered up again. He was a terrible figure - his head nodding down upon his breast. Somebody shot again, and then the swaying figure toppled and fell. It lay still for a moment - then rolled over - then lay still again.
I should note that the above passage comes from the book, not the magazine, and differs a fair amount since Pyle extensively revised the text somewhat over a year later. The picture, too, was retitled, “The Combatants cut and slashed with savage Fury,” for the book version. Go and see the luminous original at the Delaware Art Museum.

“‘Then I will come,’ said he” by Howard Pyle (1894)

The second picture shows Jack Ballister and Miss Eleanor Parker “standing in the full moonlight, which will make an effective contrast to the illustration preceding it, having, as it will, a background setting of the night and the starry sky.” Or so Pyle described it in his letter of May 25, 1894. He went on:
This picture will not necessarily be especially dark, though of course it will not be as brilliant as the full sunlight. Nevertheless, I should recommend it as a fitting subject. It accents the peaceful conclusion of a rather active story, especially as it will directly follow, both in the magazine and the book form, the fight between Blackbeard and the King’s men.

It seems to me that it would hardly be in keeping with the story to culminate the illustrations with action instead of repose. However, of course I will make whatever illustrations you think fitting.
But Clarke conceded, and Pyle painted with breakneck speed. His Wilmington neighbor, Caroline Tatnall Bush - called “Carrie” - who later married Christopher L. Ward, posed for Eleanor, who, in turn, provided the name for Pyle’s second daughter, born February 10 that same year.


kev ferrara said...

I've always felt that Blackbeard's Last Fight is the threshold moment where Pyle definitively becomes one of the great compositional virtuosos and innovators in the history of art... Anti-academic with a vengeance and full of the vigor of real life. Yet beautifully drawn.

Love that second picture! Another "new" Pyle for me. :)

Mucho Gracias, Amigo!

Ian Schoenherr said...

I agree (of course!). The “Last Fight” is so complex and unusual and so ahead of its time - and hardly the thing you’d see in any other children’s magazine, or any magazine, really, in 1894 or 1895. Having so immersed myself in his life and work, I know how Pyle can come off as a sentimental square sometimes, but this thing...

And it wasn’t until I was prepping the picture of Jack and Eleanor that recognized how lovely it was: the light on her face, the moonlight on the distant river - and the simple, yet dead-on arrangement of “the masses” in general. I gather that the original is much meatier than this scan of an early halftone.