Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Pyle-Parrish Connection

Did Maxfield Parrish actually study with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in the winter of 1894-95? The topic has been debated over the years and James Gurney presents some evidence sort of against the notion, via Frank Schoonover. But Schoonover, who entered Pyle’s class at Drexel in Fall 1896, is not always a reliable witness. So, here is some opposing evidence from the horses’ mouths, as it were...

The Delaware Historical Society owns a draft of a letter Pyle wrote in December 1905, while negotiating with S. S. McClure about taking over the art editorship of McClure’s Magazine (as well as a larger scheme that never took off). In it, Pyle states:
It so happens that for years I have been teaching my pupils that that which really counts in the work of a true artist is not so much the ability to draw well and to paint well as it is to say something from the heart concerning Nature and humanity and in saying that thing so strongly that it shall make a vital appeal to other men and women, even if they do not know much about the technical excellencies of art.

The result of this plan of education has been that my pupils have been almost unusually successful in their work. For I have been able to train such artists as Mr Parrish, Miss Green, Miss Smith, Miss Oakley, Mr Aylward, Mr Schoonover, Mr Wyeth, Mr Arthurs, Mr Oakley, etc etc. so that their work has made a distinct impression upon the world of American Art - at least of American Magazine Art.
So much for Pyle’s point of view. But Parrish, too, touched on the subject three different times in letters (now at the Delaware Art Museum) to Richard Wayne Lykes, author of the invaluable thesis, “Howard Pyle, Teacher of Illustration”:
I was in his class at the Drexel Institute for only a winter and did not have the chance to know him as well as members of his class which was formed afterwards.... It was not so much the actual things he taught us as contact with his personality that really counted. Somehow after a talk with him you felt inspired to go out and do great things, and wondered afterwards by what magic he did it... [March 28, 1945]
You see, I knew him impersonally for one winter in a rather large class, whereas those thirty members of his class at Chadds Ford had a chance during the five summers to get thoroughly acquainted with him.... I really could not say just what part of my training could be attributed to H.P. Inspiration perhaps more than anything... [April 9, 1945]
I wish I could tell you more of my association with H.P. - anecdotes and the like, I saw far less of him than the other students, and hardly had a chance to get acquainted. I’ve an idea I dropped out of that first class at the Drexel Institute before the end, no doubt to work on soap advertisements and worse, dreadful stuff, but wasn’t I glad to get them! I had one grand day with him when he invited me down to Wilmington, and we drove around the countryside. He was living then in the fine old house of Ambassador Byard (?) [sic: Bayard] After that I never saw him again. [January 15, 1948]
Incidentally, Pyle moved out of the Bayard house, “Delamore,” in (I think) April 1896, so the visit occurred sometime in 1895 or ’96. Parrish also noted in a January 10, 1951, letter to Thornton Oakley: “Yes, I was in Howard Pyle’s class at Drexel for a while.”

So there you go.

And it’s interesting to point out that - I’m pretty sure - Parrish and Pyle’s wife, Anne Poole Pyle, were blood relatives: first cousins twice removed, to be exact: Anne’s grandparents, William Poole and Sarah Sharples, were Parrish’s great-great grandparents.


James Gurney said...

Thanks for adding this interesting evidence. Schoonover's interview was many decades after the fact, and he may have told the story to make a point about Pyle's generosity in regarding Parrish as an equal.

kev ferrara said...

I second Jim's thanks.

Schoonover is an interesting case. He was near 90 years of age when he gave that interview, and I have a sense that he wasn't the objective historian type to begin with. I keep getting the feeling that his sense of Pyle as a kind of father figure colors his opinions of other well-known Pyle students... Something akin to sibling rivalry, maybe an unconscious possessiveness. Just enough to err on the side of minimizing Parrish's involvement with Pyle in the absence of complete data.

This question of Pyle's influence on Parrish has always interested me. In what way does Parrish's work remind us of the Brandywine illustrators? -- that we can see where there is some influence... attention to detail and history, strong silhouettes and graphics, vivid imagination, the study of outdoor effects of nature and the attempt to capture them somehow...? Clearly Parrish was already a student of Pyle's work before he ever was in his class, or else he would not have entered his class as an already-working pro.

That Parrish was also asked this question only after 50 years had passed makes a solid answer all the more unlikely.