Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Pyle

Robert Louis Stevenson died 115 years ago today, so here is Howard Pyle’s sole illustration for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Even though quite a few of Pyle’s pictures are set in “modern” times (i.e. circa 1865-1911), they tend to be eclipsed by his historical and fantasy work. But this one has all the earmarks of his best and better-known pieces: a riveting, yet dynamic composition; fine detail (where needed) that gives way to looser, more evocative brushwork; great chiaroscuro, tension, drama; and it leaves plenty to the imagination while perfectly complementing the passage it illustrates:
He put the glass to his lips and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change - he seemed to swell - his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter - and the next moment, I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arms raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror.

“O God!” I screamed, and “O God!” again and again; for there before my eyes - pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death - there stood Henry Jekyll!

It reminds me (in a twisted way) of Vermeer’s “The Artist in His Studio” - the heavy drapery at one side, the framed picture (as opposed to a map) on the back wall, the placement and lighting of the cluttered table, the almost photographic “presence” (for want of a better expression) - though Pyle’s is more of a snapshot whereas Vermeer’s is a large format studio portrait.

It was published in Volume Seven of The Novels and Tales of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895). The reproduction is a tiny 2.9 x 4.1" and the original oil on board is 11 x 15.6" and can be seen at the Delaware Art Museum.

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