Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“I’ll knock the — — head off of you!”

Headband for “A Transferred Romance” by Howard Pyle (1892)

I seem to be featuring many of Howard Pyle’s “modern” illustrations - I mean those set during his own lifetime and innocent of all pirates, knights, ogres, damsels, cavaliers, minutemen, etc.. But sometimes Pyle’s romantic, fantastical, or historical subjects can be too seductive and distracting, and it’s useful to be reminded that what makes Pyle great isn’t what he painted, but how he painted it. Or, more broadly, it’s not what he put in his pictures, but how he put his pictures together.

Take the one shown here. This sea of bobbing boaters and bowlers has gotten undeservedly little attention since its sole appearance in Harper’s Weekly for April 9, 1892. Pyle painted it that winter for his own story, “A Transferred Romance,” in which he drew on his own experiences as a young artist.

The halftone reproduction is primitive, yet still powerful. Pyle’s crowds are never static masses, but living, often lurching organisms composed of distinct individuals. And while the image has a photographic feel, clearly Pyle was deliberate in his placement of highlighted shoulders, hat brims and crowns, and other edges, which all add force to the fist thrusting toward the cowering artist (named Regy).

Here is the passage Pyle depicted:
“— — you!” cried Jack Kelly, in the same high-pitched hoarseness of mad passion. “I’ll knock the — — head off of you!”

As he spoke he tore off his coat, and threw down his hat with a dreadful readiness.

Then, in an instant, in a flash, Regy saw that Nemesis had come, and he felt his soul melt within at the imminence of the dreadful thing that was coming upon him. He was horribly frightened. His knees seemed to grow suddenly weak, and he knew the blood left his cheeks. He looked about him like one in a nightmare, and he saw that a horrid circle hemmed him in. Almost instantly, upon the first outburst of the disturbance, a crowd had gathered around the two, those on the outskirts standing upon the benches around. Regy saw, as in a dream, the faces of the men, some laughing, all interested; he saw the girls clustering in fear, like a flock of sheep in a thunder-storm, and poor Hetty Donnelly white as death. All had passed in a second or two, but it seemed to him a long time.

“Let me go,” cried he, panting. “I don’t want to fight.”

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