Friday, March 11, 2011

In Howard Pyle’s Studio, 1911

Ethel Pennewill Brown in Howard Pyle’s studio, 1911

Olive Rush, Blanche Grant, and Ethel Pennewill Brown in Howard Pyle’s studio, 1911

Before leaving for Italy in November 1910, Howard Pyle asked his student Ethel Pennewill Brown if she and her friend and fellow-student, Olive Rush (then in Paris), would rent his studio while he was gone. It would cost $50 a month - too much money, in Rush’s view - but Brown accepted Pyle’s offer. Rush was “amazed” by Brown’s action, but was able to rationalize it: “I suppose she could hardly refuse - when he insisted that we take it whether we pay all up or not - after all his former kindnesses it might have seemed ungrateful.”

Indeed, rent was not non-negotiable: some months later, even, Pyle reassured Brown, “I want you to pay me whatever you feel that you can afford upon it. I want at any rate for you to have the studio, and I would rather that you should have it for nothing at all than that it should go into other and stranger hands.”

Rush, however, had to back out of the plan (temporarily, at least, since she needed to hurry from Europe to Indiana and care for her dying mother) and another artist, Blanche Chloe Grant (1874-1948), stepped in. Grant was a stranger to Pyle, but not to Brown, who had met her the previous winter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Fortunately, one hundred years ago today - March 11, 1911 - the newspaper Every Evening described what Pyle called the “girls’ settlement” at 1305 Franklin Street:
...Even though the master is away, art goes on in Wilmington just the same. The atmosphere remains and there is yet Mr. Pyle’s studio with some of his immortal pen and inks hanging on the wall above the Franklin stove, a few oils on the walls, and there are his “properties,” generously left for the common good. He always did lend generously of himself and his substance, and now that he is removed to a distant land, there is still recourse to his possessions, albeit the studio is now given over to the woman in art. Mr. Pyle never has favored the woman for painting, but he always recognised ability, and far from putting obstacles in the way, made the path of true merit and devotion to work as easy as his advice would make it....

Who couldn’t work in the very “Holy of Holies,” the “Sanctum Sanctorum?” The very air bespeaks the presence of Mr. Pyle and emits the elixir that feeds ambition and spurs one on to deeds of art. Miss Grant came to this city about two weeks after Mr. Pyle went abroad, but she feels the influence and has not regretted the choice of her workshop. It had been arranged that Miss Olive Rush would be with Miss Brown, but on her return from Europe, early in December, it was necessary for Miss Rush to go to her home in Indiana; hence Miss Grant’s opportunity.

There is always a wholesome respect and a little awe for Mr. Pyle’s possessions, and everybody takes the best care of his furniture and his effects in general. The studio is “homey” and “comfy” and many drop in, artistic and otherwise. On Saturday nights the gathering devotes its time to sketching, and all the women artists come to draw friends who love to pose for them. On Wednesday nights it’s musical, and the laity join with knights and ladies of the brush. The piano and the violin sound through the lights and shadows of the studio and all is merry within. There is light for the players and gloom for the audience if they seek the south room or the recesses of the high-backed settle before the chimney place. Mr. Pyle’s writing room, up the little stairway, is a fine place for playing that you’re Barbara Frietchie or to wave your handkerchief to Romeo....
And perhaps even more fortunately, somebody took photographs of the studio while Brown, Rush, and Grant were staying there. The ones shown here come from the Olive Rush Papers at the Archives of American Art and more can be seen in Box 6, Folders 7 and 8, conveniently digitized (but not very well labeled) here.

John G. Weller and Ethel Pennewill Brown posing in Howard Pyle’s studio, 1911

1 comment:

kev ferrara said...

I too have gone through the Smithsonian archives of Olive Rush's materials. Of course, I was looking for more notes on Brandywine picture-making. And was frustrated in that regard. I got a sense that Miss Rush drifted from thing to thing following the winds of the moment. She seemed to be most comfortable when she turned to modernism, but she always seemed to be on the outside of whatever the philosophy of the moment was, peeking in.

The Smithsonian archives are a real treasure trove, but I hope someday there is funding enough to get more of it online and organized properly.

One interesting tidbit I found there answered (somewhat) a question that I'd had since reading Pitz' Brandywine Tradition. Pitz wrote that Thornton Oakley had codified Pyle's principles into a kind of dogmatic Ten Commandments, which he presented to his class to be memorized. There was a clear suggestion that Pitz didn't approve of Oakley's didactic reformulation of Pyle, and Pitz, to my knowledge, never provides Oakley's formulations.

Anyhow, on the Smithsonian archives, Oakley student Joseph Hirsch said the following: You asked me how Oakley was as a teacher. He was a didactic, old-fashioned teacher who would make you memorize things: "What is beauty?" "Beauty is truth, etc." Clearness, force and elegance were three precepts that he kept reinforcing. It was almost a kind of recited chant in the class. "You get clearness by having one thought only. You get force by living in your picture. You get elegance by loving your subject."

Best wishes,