Monday, June 6, 2011

Howard Pyle vs. N. C. Wyeth

Behold, two great versions - two great visions - of the same scene from Kidnapped:

“I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body” by Howard Pyle (1895)

“I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body” by Howard Pyle, painted in black and white oil, about 11 x 16" on canvas board for The Novels and Tales of Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1895). The original is at the Delaware Art Museum. The reproduction in the book (from which the above was scanned) is only 3 x 4.3" and the sized paper has rippled and yellowed over time.

“The Siege of the Round-House” by N. C. Wyeth (1913)

“The Siege of the Round-House” by N. C. Wyeth, painted in full-color oil on canvas, about 32 x 40" for Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913). The Brandywine River Museum has the original which is considerably less yellow than this plate (5 1/4 x 6 5/8") from an early edition of the book.

The more I look at Pyle’s paintings the more I feel that there is a certain “quietness” (I wouldn’t say “coolness”) in even his most action-packed scenes. They uncannily capture those slow-motion, hushed moments of highest tension. As I’ve said before (somewhere around here), one of the things I love about Pyle is that his best pictures - and his best writings - activate my other senses as I look or read: I feel the sun’s hot glare; I smell the grass or the smoke; I hear the distant birds or lapping waves. It’s subtle, yet it’s a big part of what gives his work its resonance and power. And when I look at this picture I hear the thin, almost imperceptible blade piercing the mate’s clothing as it emerges from his back.

Pyle once said something to the effect of, “If you hear a man say, ‘I will kill you!’ in wild passionate tones you will not believe that he means it - but if he should say it quietly and deliberately with the passion kept behind you will know that life is endangered.”

Of course, N. C. Wyeth rarely kept the passion behind. In this as in so many of his pictures (especially his earlier ones) his barbaric yawp is loud and clear - not to mention the cacophony of clattering swords, shouts, and stamping feet. His scene is more overtly melodramatic and theatrical than Pyle’s: it’s even illuminated as if by footlights. But while Wyeth’s actors are hammier, his colors brighter, and his composition simpler, somehow he pulls it off - as he so often did. His over-the-top approach was as effective as it was different from his teacher’s “quiet and deliberate” path.