Friday, November 9, 2012

Howard Pyle, An Appreciation

by Henry M. Alden

Howard Pyle, whose sudden death at Florence, Italy, November 9th, it is our painful office to record, had been for more than thirty years intimately associated, both as author and artist, with the periodical publications of Harper & Brothers - in later years more especially with their Magazine, though his earliest triumphs were won in Harper’s Weekly. The news of his death will bring sorrow to the hearts of all our readers. He has passed away at the very height of his career and in the prime of his manhood, while absorbed in the prosecution of a work which engaged his most ardent enthusiasm and the most distinctive qualities of his genius. He had been abroad since the summer [sic fall] of 1910. It was his first visit to Europe. And he was in Italy - the home of poetry and song, the treasure-house of all the arts! But his quest was not for the old masters. He sought for something older than any art-gallery or academic haunt could yield, something more native and elemental, lodged in the hearts and forever embodied in the idiomatic speech of the people.

Before he went abroad Pyle had sought this kind of treasure at home, in out-of-the-way places, in the Peninsular Canaan of the Eastern Shore, in old Dunkard and Quaker settlements, in the haunts and legends of pirates and buccaneers; and when the contemporary environment failed him he had recourse to history, reverting to Colonial annals, to the England of the Roundheads, and even back to those Arthurian legends upon which he loved to dwell.

This peculiarity set Pyle apart from all the other eminent artists of his time, and it was this mainly that made him an author. He loved to tell a quaint and antique tale as well as to picture it. Abbey found delight in knightly legend, but nothing could have persuaded him even to associate it with literature. Nothing could have kept Pyle from bringing speech into company with his colors. Thus the whole form and scheme of art was conceived differently by these men.

We see then clearly why Pyle, after his technical art-training, did not look to London or Paris for his inspiration. For his purpose he did not need them. He achieved rare technical distinction. His color-sense was a native possession, but it was, in the course of his career, developed to exquisite perfection. No artist has surpassed him in the application of this sense to the process of color-reproduction in magazine illustration.

Creative imagination of a peculiarly original sort characterized all of Pyle’s work, both as artist and as writer. He was not literary in his writing any more than he was academic in his art. But there was always the subjective prompting, however clear and bold the projection. He was spiritually allied to Swedenborg. No adventure attracted him unless it was an adventure of the soul - never subtle, always elemental, and according to a man’s nature, and therefore often evil. This was as apparent in his early stories as in his current Italian folk-lore tales. Perhaps his subjective disposition, in this peculiarity of it, is disclosed best by contrast with artists who, like Remington, loved adventure for its own sake - tough fighting, military combats, pioneer roughing, bronco-busting, and the like - the wholly external thing. We could hardly think of Pyle as an expert war correspondent.

We have lost not only a great artist and a great imaginative writer, but a great soul.

[First published in Harper’s Weekly for November 18, 1911]

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