Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day

Howard Pyle was on friendly terms with three presidents - or, more precisely, two presidents and one future president. The future president was Woodrow Wilson, with whom Pyle carried on a spirited correspondence while collaborating on two projects in 1895-96 and 1900-01. Pyle also knew - if only slightly - William Howard Taft and even wrote some bona fide propaganda for Taft’s 1908 campaign against William Jennings Bryan. But, above all, Pyle was closest to Theodore Roosevelt. And he certainly could lay it on thick sometimes...
If I may write so intimately, I would like to say that it [is] my strong and personal belief that you will stand forth in history as one of the very greatest of our presidents, and it is a matter of pride and joy to me to think that one whom I believe I may regard as a friend should be destined to descend into the future as so dominant and so inspiring a figure. (Howard Pyle to Theodore Roosevelt, September 11, 1907)
The admiration went both ways, however, and in honor of Presidents Day, here are some things Roosevelt said to or about Pyle:
This note introduces a particular friend of mine, Mr. Howard Pyle, the writer. He is a first-class fellow in every way and I commend him to your courtesy. (Letter to Captain W. H. Brownson, June 11, 1903)

You can hardly imagine, my dear fellow, how much I prize your good opinion, and how loath I should be to forfeit it. (Letter to Howard Pyle, July 5, 1904)

One of the very best men I know anywhere, one of the pleasantest companions, stanchest friends, and best citizens, is Mr. Howard Pyle, the artist.... he is as good a man as there is in the country. (Letter to Gifford Pinchot, September 9, 1907)

One of the pleasantest features of our time in Washington has been the friendship of you and dear Mrs. Pyle.
(Letter to Howard Pyle, February 19, 1909)
I’ve often wondered what Pyle would have made of the three-way presidential race of 1912 which pitted Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson against each other. As Pyle was a lifelong Republican (though there’s a chance he turned Mugwump and voted for Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, in 1884), I doubt he would have considered voting for Wilson. And he believed in Taft because he thought Taft would “[carry] forward the work which [Roosevelt had] so magnificently begun to an equally magnificent fulfillment” (Pyle to Taft, November 5, 1908) - something that Taft didn’t really do, after all. So I think Pyle’s idolatry of Roosevelt (and his somewhat progressive tendencies) would have trumped party loyalty, and he would have become a Bull Mooser and followed Roosevelt wherever he went.


kev ferrara said...

WWI had a rather profound effect on many of Pyle's students, too much reality... and I think it would have affected the master quite strongly as well. Mysticism became very unfashionable by 1917, and Pyle's mysticism may have taken a hit as well, if not his almost mystical sense of U.S. martial history. I imagine him getting more involved in politics if he had lived, possibly becoming less enamored of TR's robust internationalism given the bloodiness of the great war, and maybe following more along the lines of other Quakers into something like a neutral non-interventionist position. But he was an independent and tough minded thinker, so he probably would have been just as confused as everybody else by the events that followed his death. Alas...

Ian Schoenherr said...

But as America didn't experience the horrors of the war to the same degree as Europe, maybe Pyle would have continued to cling to his mysticism and to his notions about art (notions he considered "radical", but which were more likely "radically conservative") and just followed the career path he envisioned: painting murals for public buildings (under the somewhat naive belief in their permanence and "importance").

I haven't a clue about the war's psychological effects on the Pyle students who served (or, at least, OBserved), but didn't Harvey Dunn and W. J. Aylward just keep doing what they had been doing before the war, i.e. making historical or romantic or nostalgic pictures?

Oh, I don't know...

kev ferrara said...

I don't know either, but its interesting to speculate.

In my understanding, connected American intellectuals were highly influenced by WWI's horrendous human devastation. It was widely understood that the great conflict (and the many other European wars preceding it) were wholly unnecessary, caused to a large degree by a "romantic nationalism." It was for this reason that romanticism became associated with war and became highly unfashionable... and movements sprung up to quash it under the aegis of progressive materialism, to separate scientific progress from romantic-nationalist based militarism, and to promote a peaceful socialist union among nations that would eventually result in the end the idea of the bounded nation state altogether.

This line of argument would have been at odds with Pyle's staunch Americanism, yet at the same time appealed to his reason, given the results of the great war. Then again, his belief in individuality and "great men" would have countermanded any collectivist notions that came his way.

I agree that Pyle would have continued pursuing murals.

I'd love to hear which of his notions on art Pyle considered to be "radical." I'd never heard that before. I know the Art Students League of that time was actually avant garde in comparison to the national academy.

Dunn was profoundly affected by WWI and his work afterwards underwent a change... became more visceral and unsentimental, especially with regard to pictures that contained action, including his own war pictures. Not that he ever lost his poetic streak, he just pushed the brutal honesty and robustness more, taking the Pyle notion of "living in the picture" as far as it can go to the point that it was beyond the bounds of what magazines might require in order to create the environment necessary to sell soap to genteel ladies.

I don't know about Aylward... except that I love his work too.

Maybe I'm wrong that Pyle would have changed.

Its very difficult predicting the future of the past.


Ian Schoenherr said...

Regarding the Pyle's "radical" point of view: in a September 28, 1903, letter to W. M. R. French (head of the Art Institute of Chicago) Pyle said:

"I believe I wrote you that I was invited by Yale University to deliver their annual address to the Art School last June. The subject which I chose was entitled 'The Art of the Age,' and I endeavored in this to explain my understanding of the difference between the Art of the past and the Art that is demanded by the present age. I somehow felt that my ideas were not altogether pleasing to the Unversity people, for they were very radical and I stated very clearly and concisely my opinion that our age and our times require an art that, if not distinctly different from the Art of the past, is, at least, an adaptation and completion of the art of the past to fit our present needs."

[This might be somewhat vague, still, so - eventually! - I'll post more about Pyle's "radical" thoughts.]