Saturday, January 9, 2010

Washington and Steuben at Valley Forge, 1896

"Washington and Steuben at Valley Forge" by Howard Pyle (1896)

Howard Pyle felt compelled to convince Woodrow Wilson that an illustration featuring Valley Forge would be perfect for the latter's article, “General Washington” (Harper’s Monthly, July 1896). “Not only is it a very sublime subject, but there are no doubt instances of individuality displayed by Washington at that time that would be very dramatic,” Pyle stressed in a letter of February 5, 1896. “I wish you would consider that and see what you think of it, for I feel very sure that it is a point we should not miss.”

Wilson didn’t need too much convincing. “I can agree very heartily to an incident taken from Valley Forge,” he replied on February 7, “if only you hit upon something that took place there which dramatically reveals the man, and not merely the now conventional subject of the sufferings of the troops from cold and privation. Washington’s greatness at Valley Forge was moral: can you get at that in a picture of any veritable incident?”

Pyle outlined some possibilities on February 11:
To illustrate this I would choose one of three subjects, the picture of Washington paying a visit to one of the huts - a sick man huddled in his cot, another lean man near, and a cadaverous soldier standing near him, or else I would represent a picture of Washington in his own hut - the log shanty into which he moved after living in the stone house called his headquarters - either reading his Bible or else receiving one of his many worrying letters, the messenger standing warming his hands by the firelight, or else a picture of Washington and Baron Stuben [sic] passing down the street of huts with a foreground group, of soldiers standing at the door saluting as the two officers pass.

In my opinion the last of the three subjects will make the best illustration.
Pyle didn’t wait for Wilson’s approval, but declared in the same letter, “I shall begin to-day upon the picture of Washington and Stuben [sic].” It wasn’t that Pyle didn’t care what Wilson thought: rather, his initiative shows the level of trust that had developed between the two men over the course of their collaboration. Indeed, Wilson proved “unaffectedly delighted” with Pyle’s choice of subject and felt all the more convinced that Pyle understood “the objects I have in view quite as sympathetically as I do myself.”

By early March, Pyle was able to inform Harper and Brothers that he would deliver the picture - and the others for the article - “within a few days”. And on the 16th he assured Wilson, “The last set of illustrations are, I think, by far the most successful that I have made, and I am almost sure you will like them - especially the one of Washington and Stuben [sic] at Valley Forge.”

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