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 Mediæval 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.

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