Thursday, February 28, 2013

“It looks very much posed”

The above photograph, showing Howard Pyle with “The Evacuation of Charlestown” on his easel in his Wilmington studio, has now and then been dated 1897 and 1898.

But 1897 is incorrect because Pyle only started the painting in mid-1898: Frank Schoonover remembered that Pyle (his teacher at the time) was working on it during the Drexel Institute’s first Summer School of Illustration - which officially opened on June 23, 1898:
I recall that Mr. Pyle set up a very poor three-legged easel on the lawn in front of the house at Chadds Ford, and put his canvas on the easel. Miss Ellen Bernard Thompson...was painting something on the lower side of the road, and just beyond her was the Indian painter, Angel DeCora. There were some chairs and books of engravings of Colonial ships of the line out on the porch, and there were also the Pyle children playing around in the yard. The sky was very blue that day, with many floating clouds. Mr. Pyle asked me to fasten the canvas so that it would not shake, so I went back into the house and got the things needed.

Mr. Pyle then sat down on a kitchen chair and started to work under an apple tree, but he had no mahl stick. Then he said, “Frank, I see a fine straight sucker up there - climb up and cut it off.” I did so...

It was amazing to see him do this painting with so many distractions such as the children’s running around and so forth.... The painting has a shadow across the water like the shadow of the lawn, and the sky is as it was that day at Chadds Ford with the drifting clouds making shadows on the uneven lawn, which was much the color of the water in the picture. This was a lesson to all the students to interpret the things around them when painting.
“The Evacuation of Charlestown” was later packed up and hurried off to be photographed and made into a half-tone plate, just in time to appear in Scribner’s Magazine for September 1898. The Delaware Art Museum now owns the original painting (oil on canvas 23.25 x 35.25" - if you’re keeping score).

But back to the above photo: 1898 is probably the wrong date, too. Years ago, looking in a box at the Delaware Art Museum’s library, I saw - I think - two glass-plate negatives made by Cyrus Peter Miller Rumford. There, too, I saw Rumford’s scribbled notes stating that these were “Portraits of Howard Pyle for Home Journal ’99” and (provided I’m reading my own scribbles correctly) it seems that Rumford arrived with his camera at Pyle’s Wilmington studio at 3.00 p.m. one January day in 1899 and took a total of four photos.

Rumford, who had turned 26 that month, was a recent Harvard graduate (Class of 1897) and already a prize-winning photographer. And, apparently, either from his own or Pyle’s initiative he made the photos for an article in the April 1899 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal, titled “The Journal’s Artists in Their Studios” - but for some reason the magazine chose not to print them.

Pyle’s own opinion of the photos sounds mixed: on February 11, 1899, he dictated the following letter:
Wilmington, Del.

My dear Mr Rumford:

I am very much obliged to you for the photograph of myself in my studio. It looks very much posed, but that is the fault of the subject and not of the photographer. It was very kind of you to remember me.

Once more thanking you,

I am

Very truly yours

Howard Pyle

February eleventh.
I don’t know why Pyle says “the photograph” and not “the photographs” - maybe Rumford only sent a print of what he considered the best. But “very much posed” is about right: these two known photos show a seated Pyle - who usually stood at his easel - stiffly “at work” on the already-finished “Evacuation of Charlestown”.

I should note, too, that Pyle’s letter to Rumford was handwritten by Pyle’s secretary, Anna W. Hoopes, and although it appears to be signed by Pyle, the signature is, in fact, the work of Miss Hoopes as well. In a 1935 talk she explained:
When rushed at the end of the day with correspondence, [Mr. Pyle] often asked me to sign his letters; and I became so proficient at imitating his signature, that he once made me promise not to copy his handwriting, jokingly remarking that sometime I might want to sign his checks.

When Howard Pyle “Struck Pan”

“The little pink finger and the huge black index came to a full stop under this commandment”

“Work is beginning to roll in upon me at last, and at last I think I have ‘struck pan,’” wrote Howard Pyle to his mother on February 28, 1878 - 135 years ago today. “My work is beginning to pay better too and I think before long I shall be able to pay off my debts to father in toto.”

Although I haven’t yet been able to find another use of Pyle’s idiom “struck pan” - it’s clearly a hybrid gold-mining term, somewhere between “struck pay dirt” and “pan out”.

Anyway, after over a year of living in New York, the 24-year-old Pyle had finally found himself making real headway as an illustrator. He credited his “A Wreck in the Offing!” as having “really launched me” - The Book Buyer for October 1888 said of it, “This drawing was published as a double-page engraving in Harper’s Weekly, and brought Mr. Pyle at once into prominence.”

But let’s let Pyle himself explain some of the work that he had been doing soon after his “first success” - and apologies in advance for his unfortunate racial slur:
I have just finished a picture for Harper’s Monthly of an old darky giving a lecture to a naughty little girl. It was quite a success and they are going to put it into the hands of the best engraver in New York City, Mr. Smithwick. They gave me two pictures to do for them in illustration to a most excellent story of modern Spanish life. They are beyond all comparison the best things I have ever done. I don’t think I am as a general rule inclined to be “cock almighty” about my work but for these two designs I can say that they are so far beyond anything I have ever done before that I can hardly realize their being my own work. They are not finished yet, but so far every touch I have put on them has improved them.

“She went by without looking at him”
The first one represents a Spanish caballero standing against the side of a bridge looking after his Dulcinea whom he has mortally offended by a lampoon written in a fit of jealousy. She is “soaring” past him with a scornful expression on her face and he is looking after her in a beseeching way. The scene is early morning and I think I have gotten a real feeling of early sunlight in the picture. I borrowed a Spanish cloak from an artist friend of mine that almost entirely covers the modern European dress and which with the addition of a sombrero gives him quite a picturesque look. I hired a Spanish woman’s costume in which I posed my female model Jenny Watts, a very pretty ladylike girl, and I tell you, she cut quite a shine!

Fermina opens the casket
The story goes on to say that after having thus mortally offended his sweetheart and being for some time unable to regain her love the cavalier finally succeeds by sending her a casket. In the casket was the pen with which he had written, broken; under the pen, a sheet of paper where was written in his blood “Retribution,” and under the paper his right hand. This, of course, “dropped” the girl. A very effective dénouement, I think. The scene I took for illustration was when she is just opening the box, or rather, had just opened it, the horror not yet fully dawned upon her mind. This was Mr. Alden’s suggestion. And I have made an illustration that some of my artist friends say shows not only talent but genius - I only hope it is so. Mr. Abbey says it is one of the best things that have been done in New York illustrating.
By the way, “The little pink finger and the huge black index came to a full stop under this commandment” was engraved, in the end, by Frederick Juengling, not John G. Smithwick, and published in Harper’s Monthly for July 1878. It illustrated “Daddy Will: A Glimpse of Ancient Dixie” by Charles D. Deshler. Pyle’s original black and white gouache painting showed up on the market in 2006, I think. And “She went by without looking at him” and “Fermina opens the casket” illustrated “Manuel Menendez” by Charles Carroll in Harper’s Monthly for August 1878.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Howard Pyle: From Idea to Illustration

On Saturday, March 9, 2013, at 11.30 a.m., I’ll be giving a talk entitled “Howard Pyle: From Idea to Illustration” at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. You can register in advance for it here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gamboling in the Great Game of Human Redemption

Crisis Magazine recently featured an interesting review of - or, rather, an essay on - Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as a kind of Christian parable. The devout Pyle probably would have approved of this interpretation.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Howard Pyle and the Groundhog

“According to the tradition of the ‘ground-hog’ the weather should have broken by now, but this time the ‘ground-hog’ was a prophet neither in his own country nor out of it. We read that you also on the other side of the ocean are suffering a like bitter winter and, indeed, the whole earth seems to be girdled by a belt of ice. I suppose that we should take comfort that one is not worse off than ones neighbours but I do not know that that fact makes the thermometer any higher.”
Howard Pyle to Thomas Francis Bayard (in London), February 10, 1895.