Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Howard Pyle Proto-Selfie

Howard Pyle’s 1906 Self-Portrait (Collection of the National Academy of Design)

Howard Pyle took lots and lots of photographs - at least according to his daughter Eleanor - but I don’t know if he ever took the equivalent of a “selfie.” That is, unless you count the ones he “took” in ink and paint.

Pyle’s earliest known self-portraits date from 1884 and decorated his verse “Serious Advice” in Harper’s Young People; the last known one came along over two decades later.

In May of 1905, Pyle was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design and was required to present a self-portrait to its permanent collection. Francis Davis Millet (who had notified Pyle of his election) assured him that “a portrait head is all that is needed & this isnt difficult for you, one of the pupils would be glad of the chance, I know.”

But Pyle didn’t get one of his pupils to do it - and he didn’t get around to doing it himself for almost a year. “I had thought ere this to have had the portrait in your hands,” wrote Pyle to the clerk of the Academy on April 16, 1906, “but many things have intervened to interfere with my purpose.”

At the time, Pyle was deep into his Art-Editorship of McClure’s Magazine and his large picture of “The Battle of Nashville” - but somehow he managed to deliver the painting on April 25th.

It’s funny, though, that - to my mind, at least - Pyle’s less “serious” self-portraits resemble him more than this one does. I assume he used a mirror in the making of it, so I flopped the painting and parked it in between photos taken in 1902 and 1906, and 1907 and 1910.

As you can see, the eyes and pince-nez are almost identical to the photo immediately to the right (which, I confess, I photoshopped to remove his hand), but Pyle doesn’t quite capture his slight underbite, nor the proportions of his mouth, nor the shape of his nose, and so on.

Then again, Pyle was a reluctant or resistant portrait painter - this despite the fact that he incorporated plenty of portraiture into his illustrations: just look at his depictions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, or Oliver Wendell Holmes. The challenge of capturing the likeness and personality and spirit of someone seated directly in front of him (or reflected in a mirror) seems more than Pyle could handle. As he told his friend Cass Gilbert in a 1910 letter, shortly after sending what he considered to be a failed portrait of Mrs. Gilbert, “I do not like portrait painting; indeed, I hate it.”


kev ferrara said...

Very interesting, Ian. I really like this portrait of Pyle, even though, from the photos we have of him, it looks like a close relative of him, rather than him.

Yet, looking over photos of Pyle, even some of those don't quite look like the others. (Compare photo 1 versus 4 in your set of 5.) Possibly he fluctuated in weight, and suffered at times from diseases and stress, differing moods (as per the artistic temperament) and wore these issues on his face. Maybe this painting of him is the best representation of him we have during a rough period in his life, when he had thinned and become over-serious from the stress of taking on McClure's.

Ian Schoenherr said...

You make a good point (as usual!). I get the sense, too, that his weight went up and down - or that he was generally slenderer than we'd assume by looking at his round face head-on. (He had a generally angular-looking profile, meanwhile.)

The photo with the boater - I'm pretty sure - was taken at about the same time that he painted the portrait - or perhaps a couple of months later - and the same day as this full-length shot:

All while he must have been working at top speed - and enduring more stress than usual.