Monday, November 30, 2009

Mark Twain on Howard Pyle

Today is Mark Twain's 174th birthday - enough of a reason to talk briefly about his (or Samuel L. Clemens's) connection to Howard Pyle.

Of course, the obvious link is that Pyle illustrated Mark Twain's "Saint Joan of Arc" for Harper's Monthly (December 1904). When the magazine initially approached Pyle about the project, they wrote: "It may interest you to know that in [Clemens's] letter accompanying the manuscript he speaks of you as the one man in this or any other country who can make pictures for it." And when Harper's informed Clemens that Pyle had agreed to illustrate the piece, he replied, "I am glad that an artist rich in feeling & imagination is to make the pictures."

But Clemens was already a longtime admirer of Howard Pyle, the artist and the author. Back in early 1884, while staying with the Clemens family, George Washington Cable had noted, "Mrs. Clemens is reading aloud to Mark & the children Howard Pyle's beautiful new version of Robin Hood. Mark enjoys it hugely...." And on New Year's Day in 1903 (shortly after Pyle attended Mark Twain’s 67th birthday party in New York), Clemens reiterated his opinion: "Long ago you made the best Robin Hood that was ever written," and in the same letter he praised Pyle's new version of the King Arthur legends: "They were never so finely told in prose before. And then the pictures - one can never tire of examining them & studying them."

So, by way of a birthday present, here is Pyle's "She believed that she had daily speech with angels" from "Saint Joan of Arc" by Mark Twain. A beautiful thing.

Lafayette’s Headquarters, 1898

I like to identify real-life objects or settings that Howard Pyle incorporated into his pictures: the boots that show up again and again in over 20 years’ worth of work (and that also appear in Andrew Wyeth’s “Trodden Weed”) or the strong box he bought in Jamaica that decorates some of his pirate paintings. As for settings, here’s an example...

In 1898, Pyle created a Summer School of Illustration (under the auspices of the Drexel Institute) in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. The Pyles set up house at Lafayette Hall, an old mansion across the road from Turner’s Mill, where Pyle and his 15 students had their studios. The male students boarded at Washington’s Headquarters, near the village, and, as Pyle said in a letter to E. L. Burlingame (now in the Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons at Princeton University):
Close to me I have established the girls of the Class - nearly all of them living in a quaint little building which was Lafayette’s headquarters at the time of the Battle of Brandywine.... It is a beautiful little place perched upon the side of a hill, overlooking the stretch of valley to the airy hills beyond, and surrounded by old stone walls with a horse-block and with great buttonwood trees at the sides and sloping fields around.
Angel DeCora, one of the six female students, painted a view of the house, and below is a postcard which shows it a few years later.

As usual, besides teaching that summer, Pyle had illustrations to make, including several for “Old Captain,” a story by Myles Hemenway for the December 1898 Harper’s Monthly. And, as you can see below, Pyle used Lafayette’s Headquarters in his frontispiece titled “And you shall not hinder me,” preserving much of the porch, but transforming the distant Pennsylvania woods and fields into a small harbor town in the south of England.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just One More Turkey, 1894

As it’s still Thanksgiving weekend, I figured I would post yet another Howard Pyle illustration featuring a turkey (be warned: there are more to come - but maybe next year). This one has rarely (or never) been reproduced outside its original context, namely Pyle’s Jack Ballister's Fortunes. “He picked up the bird and held it out at arm's length” first appeared in St. Nicholas for October 1894 and then a year later in the book version of the novel, published by The Century Company. In the magazine it measured 7.6 x 5 inches. Pyle painted the original in black and white oil on a piece of academy board of about 15.5 or 16 x 10 inches. I particularly like how he captured the effect of the glaring midday sun on the southern Virginia landscape.

Men of Iron Halftone, 1891

As a footnote to my post about Howard Pyle’s black and white oil painting for Men of Iron, I present the illustration as it appeared in Harper’s Young People for March 17, 1891. The 8 x 10.5" original has been reduced to 4.8 x 6.3" and it’s not the worst reproduction - especially for something mass-produced, ephemeral, and made so early in halftone’s history - but a grey mist has crept into the room and subtleties have been lost. Still, it’s good to remember that Pyle’s reputation was made, to a large degree, on mediocre reproductions like this.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Howard Pyle in Black and White, 1883

Although it’s always bittersweet when an original Howard Pyle comes up for sale (due to my pathological desire to possess anything he created coupled with my financial inability to do so), at least I get to see an often long-lost work in person, or, short of that, I get to see a high-resolution scan or photograph. The Men of Iron piece is a case in point as Heritage Auctions posted great shots of it (and five others) on their site when part of Charles Martignette’s collection was sold last July.

And here’s a link to another example that Christie’s auctioned in September. It is “Shays’s Mob in Possession of a Court-House,” painted by Howard Pyle (probably in the summer or early fall of 1883) for Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “The Birth of a Nation” in Harper’s Monthly for January 1884.

Until it came on the market, this 8.5 x 14" oil on canvas had only been seen (except, I assume, by the owners’ inner circles) reduced to 4.8 x 6.4" and as the wood-engraver Arthur Hayman had re-interpreted it. But now we can inspect it pretty closely and see it as it looked when it left Pyle’s studio 126 years ago.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Very Pyle Thanksgiving, 1899

“As you are not going home to your Thanksgiving dinner, Mrs Pyle and I would like you very much to come down and eat a piece of turkey with us.”
Howard Pyle in a letter to his student Stanley M. Arthurs, November 28, 1899 (now at the Delaware Historical Society). Pyle also invited William Francis Weed, another student. I don’t know if either of them took him up on his offer - but who could refuse?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The First Thanksgiving

In early September 1891, Horace Bradley (1862-1896) of Harper and Brothers’ Art Department wrote to ask Howard Pyle if he would consider illustrating a poem for the Thanksgiving issue of Harper’s Bazar. Pyle replied on September 4:
The subject you propose, it strikes me, is somewhat hackneyed, for “The First Thanksgiving” in New England has been done and done and done. However, I should be glad to do it still again if you desire - it always is a popular subject.
Pyle sent in the completed full-page piece on October 13 and it appeared in Harper’s Bazar for December 5, 1891, accompanying “The First Thanksgiving” by Theron Brown. In addition to what is shown here, Pyle drew an illustrated initial “O” and hand-lettered the title and text of the poem, but I’ve committed a little heresy by editing out those elements in order to display this part to better advantage. My apologies. Also, Pyle’s correspondence indicates that he drew this actual size, so the dimensions of the original should be about 9 x 10 inches.

Thanksgiving Day (Entering Politely)

A seldom seen illustration by Howard Pyle for E. I. Stevenson’s “Revolt of the Holidays” in Harper’s Young People for December 18, 1883. The reproduction in the magazine (from which I made this scan) measures 2.8 x 4.1 inches. The original ink drawing is 4.5 x 7 inches and belongs to the Delaware Art Museum.

Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783

In honor of the now-neglected Evacuation Day, which celebrated the departure of British troops from New York after the Revolutionary War, here is “The Last Boat-Load of the British Leaving New York” by Howard Pyle, an illustration for Henry P. Johnson’s article “Evacuation of New York By the British, 1783” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for November 1883. The engraver has yet to be identified, but the dimensions of the cut are 4.7 x 5.2 inches.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24, 1876

"I wonder how long it will be that I shall have to crawl in writing before I can begin to walk? At times I feel discouraged and then again the feeling rises strong within me that there is something in me that will produce, perhaps, worthy fruit in time. At present I am trammelled more than I can describe with stiffness in manner, crudeness in style, and self-consciousness (I do not know how else to describe it) in thought. The feet of my ideas seem clogged with the difficulties of expression; I can't open the flood gates of my mind and pour out my thoughts onto the paper. The sentences will not 'round up' so as to contain the thought in the shell of a few distinctly expressed words. I have to strike again and again with simile and hyperbole before I can crack that invisible, intangible wall that separates my internal thought from the perception of others."
Howard Pyle to his mother, November 24, 1876

November 24, 1894

"Americans lose honesty in an effort to produce something 'stunning.'"
Howard Pyle at Drexel Institute, November 24, 1894 (as recorded by Bertha Corson Day)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Howard Pyle in Black and White, November 1890

In my last post I referred to the warmth and “color” of Pyle’s black and white paintings. Here is an example of what I mean: one of 21 illustrations Pyle made for his classic children’s novel Men of Iron. It’s tongue-twistingly titled “‘Belike thou sought to take this lad’s life,’ said Sir James” and shows the brash hero, Myles Falworth, being upbraided for brawling by the stern, one-eyed Sir James Lee, in the latter‘s “bare” and “cheerless” office.

Pyle probably began writing Men of Iron in 1889 as the earliest mention of it that I’ve been able to find is in a letter of January 12, 1890. A few weeks later, on January 28, he wrote to a friend:
...I am in the midst of a book which I am elaborating with all the powers which I can bring to bear upon it. I want to make it a landmark in my life’s work and I really am inclined to think that it will be so. It is the story of the development (au natural) of a MediƦval boy into a young man and I view his life not from the outside as I did with Otto [of the Silver Hand] but from the inside.
That spring, Pyle offered the novel to Harper and Brothers, who readily accepted it on Pyle’s own terms: $1000 for serial use in Harper's Young People and a $500 advance on book royalties. He cut Harper a special deal on the illustrations: $50 for each - half his going rate.

Pyle started the illustrations in the fall of 1890 and most likely finished this particular one in the middle of November. His correspondence hints that he worked at a breakneck pace: he sent two paintings to the publisher on December 2 and two more on December 7! And although Harper's Young People reproduced the illustrations in a variety of sizes, I think Pyle did all of them on uniform pieces of canvas board measuring about 8 x 10.5 inches. The underpainting appears to be raw or burnt umber; I gather Pyle would have found raw sienna too yellow and burnt sienna too red for his purposes.

There’s not much to this one, but I’ve always loved this type of Pyle’s work: strong composition, quiet tension, assured drawing, great chiaroscuro, vigorous brushwork. Look at the slight shine on Sir James’s velvet robes - the calligraphic handling of the stone floor - the glint of light on Myles’s gorget, as he leans, cocky, yet exhausted, on the table. It may not be as overtly exciting as his action-packed pieces, but it’s Pyle at his subtle best.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Howard Pyle in Green Bay, Wisconsin

In tweaking my last post (which I reserve the right to do, now and then), I found that the Green Bay and De Pere Antiquarian Society had posted photos of the Pyle paintings it recently acquired from the Brown County Library. The photos aren’t the best quality, but it’s good to see them nevertheless. Bear in mind that the photos were taken with black and white film and, although painted in black and white oil, the originals are much warmer and more “colorful” than they appear here.

And - just so folks won’t feel misled by the title of this post - Howard Pyle did, in fact, visit Green Bay: he arrived there at noon on Saturday, November 4, 1905, and spoke at the Elks Club that evening (it was supposed to be a slide lecture, but there were last minute technical problems, so he was forced to speak without backup). He spent the night with Mr. and Mrs. George Ellis at their home at 905 South Monroe Avenue (pictured below) and left town on Sunday.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Preliminary Study, 1902

A while back, James Gurney posted some of Howard Pyle’s sketches for “Kidd on the Deck of the ‘Adventure Galley,’” drawn (by my calculations) between mid-August and mid-September 1902. As James aptly described them, “They have the flavor of a vision snatched from the ether, a snapshot from the swirling creative vortex, a half-remembered dream.” And while they are typical of the sketches I’ve seen, Pyle didn’t necessarily jump from these shorthand jottings to the final work, but would - at least occasionally and surely for his more ambitious works - do more careful drawings in between.

Here, for instance, is a pencil study - made only a few months before the Kidd sketches - for his painting “In the Meadows of Youth” which formed part of “The Travels of the Soul” published in The Century Magazine for Christmas 1902. As you can see, Pyle meticulously rendered the model’s blouse, but loosened up considerably in the final work. The figure in the drawing, by the way, is about 11 inches high and the figure in the painting is about 16 inches high (the painting itself is about 31.5 x 17.5 inches).

Note, too, that although this scan of the original plate is pretty poor by today’s standards, Pyle was thrilled when he saw the proofs and wrote to the publisher, “I wish to express to you my great and sincere admiration for the way in which you have reproduced my pictures of the ‘Travels of the Soul.’ I had never hoped to have such really great results, and it seems to me, apart from any question of artistic excellence, that the technical rendition of the work must certainly make a notable impression upon the magazine world. I do not see how it can be otherwise, for it appears to me that if you print the Magazine at all like the proofs, you will have reached the high-water mark of color reproduction.”

In 1903, Alonzo Weston Kimball purchased the original painting and its three companions and presented them to the Kellogg Public Library (now the Brown County Library) in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but they (and 18 of Pyle’s paintings for “Colonies and Nation” by Woodrow Wilson) were recently acquired by the Green Bay and De Pere Antiquarian Society.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

133 Years Ago Today

Another extract from a letter Howard Pyle wrote to his mother (whom he addresses in the Quaker style) on November 18, 1876:
…Thee strongly advised me in thy letter to stick to illustrating as my particular branch. I think thee is mistaken and that by all means a literary life is the proper one for me. Thee has not much confidence in my ability as a writer, nor have I much in myself, for I have not really turned my attention to it until within the past six months. But one thing I can say and that is that where there are hundreds - thousands - of artists who can do infinitely better and more creditable work than I can and succeed in their profession while the market is overstocked with pictures, I have not met anyone as young in years or letters as I am who has succeeded better or even as well as I have. I may make many failures at first and probably will, but it’s in me and shall come out…
It's interesting to note that Pyle felt his chances for success were stronger as writer than as an artist. Granted, his early illustrations were often crude and clumsy, so I can understand his lack of confidence. But as his reminiscences of 1870's New York tend to dwell on "art life," I often forget that - at age 23, at least - Pyle saw himself as a writer first.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

November 12, 1876

The rest of the day I spent in writing, and in the evening went down to the Mercantile Library and got Howells’s A Foregone Conclusion. It makes me feel blue when I read his style and then look at my own poor endeavors, the distance is so immeasurable that it makes me heartily discouraged. I wonder if the time will ever come when I will be able to do work somewhat to my satisfaction - I begin to think there’s poor prospect.
So wrote Howard Pyle to his mother on November 12, 1876, referring to what he had done the day before. At the time Pyle was living in a boardinghouse at 250 West 38th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan. I find it somewhat helpful - if that's the right word - when folks destined for greatness reveal their doubts and struggles. Or maybe it's just Schadenfreude.

Years ago, on a whim, I went to the General Research Division at the New York Public Library and requested an early edition of A Foregone Conclusion. Lo and behold, the copy had once belonged to the New York Mercantile Library and could very well have been the same one Pyle had read back in 1876.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Dance of the Veterans

“The Dance of the Veterans,” an unsigned wood engraving measuring 9.2 x 6.1 inches, appeared in Harper’s Weekly for July 26, 1879. The credit reads “Drawn by Howard Pyle from a sketch by Louis Joutel.”

Just as a few of Pyle’s early magazine contributions were redrawn by more experienced illustrators, here Pyle seems to have done the same for the young artist and entomologist, Louis Hippolyte Joutel (1858-1916). While it is difficult to tell where Joutel ends and Pyle begins in this piece, the treatment of the peripheral characters in particular is consistent with Pyle’s style of the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Here is the text which accompanied the picture:


Among the pleasant incidents of the National Holiday was the reunion of the surviving veterans of the war of 1812 at the Sturtevant House, in this city [at Broadway and 29th Street, New York]. Eight deaths during the past year have reduced the venerable band to fourteen, consisting of the following gentlemen: General Dally, commander of the corps, aged eighty-five; Charles Coombs, aged eighty-eight; Jacob Van Nostrand, aged eighty-six; William Tway, aged eighty-one; Thomas Megson, aged eighty-one; George Crygier, aged eighty-six; David Lopez, aged ninety-one; Barnabas Allen, aged eighty-seven; Samuel Ryckman, aged eighty-seven; Parmenas Doxey, aged eighty-eight; Elijah P. Jenks, aged seventy-eight; Thomas Stewart, aged eighty; Gardiner P. Lillibridge, aged eighty-seven. The adopted Adjutant of the corps is Mr. J. Gould Warner, a young man of about fifty. Among the visitors on this occasion were John Scott, a Continental soldier, “presumably,” says the New York World, “one hundred and twenty, but as sprightly as any of the other boys,” and Miss Sarah Scott Stafford, aged seventy-eight, a daughter of Lieutenant Stafford, who jumped overboard and saved the flag of the frigate Bonhomme Richard, but received a cutlass wound while doing it that eventually resulted in his death. She brought the old flag with her, and a musket and sabre which belonged to her father.

After the generous repast provided by the Messrs. Leland, a quadrille set was formed in one of the reception-rooms. Major Crowley led Miss Randolph to the floor, followed by General Dally with Miss Berg, Mr. Coombs with Miss Dunn, and Mr. Lopez with Miss Smith. When the quadrille was over, Major Crowley and Mr. Coombs gave a stirring exhibition of how the foot used to be shaken in the good old days. This incident was seized by our artist as the subject for the illustration to be found on page 592.

At the conclusion of the dance tickets were distributed for the excursion the veterans are to have at Spring Hill Grove, on August 4, to raise money to maintain their down-town head-quarters another year, and the company separated.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Photograph of Howard Pyle, 1906

Here is Howard Pyle, with palette and brush in hand, painting - or, more likely, pretending to paint - “The Battle of Nashville” in his studio at 1305 Franklin Street in Wilmington, Delaware.

This particular print, once owned by Frederick Hill Meserve, is a detail of a larger photograph probably taken in the early summer of 1906, just as Pyle was finishing up his painting, which he copyrighted on July 9. That fall, he sent it to St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was installed - and may still be seen - in the Governor’s Reception Room in the State Capitol building, designed by Cass Gilbert.

A Howard Pyle Blog

As I say in my profile, I avidly collect the work of Howard Pyle (1853-1911), the great American artist, author, and teacher. But that’s only a slender part of my Pylomania. I also seek out information - even seemingly meaningless or useless factoids - about his life, his family, his art school, his working and teaching methods, as well as copies of his correspondence, sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, books, magazines, prints, ephemera and esoterica - pretty much any and every kind of tidbit that has something to do with him. So, to justify my existence and my obsession, I’ve started this blog to share some of what I’ve learned and accumulated.