Thursday, June 2, 2011

More on John Henderson Betts

Last year I posted something about John Henderson Betts, who studied with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute and at Chadd’s Ford, but who met an untimely and gruesome end shortly before his 25th birthday. Since then, a few of his paintings have come to light...

Betts conveniently dated this one November 9 (or 4), 1897, and he most likely made it in Pyle’s Life Class Studying from the Draped and Costumed Model (a.k.a. “Draped Model Class” or “Class in Draped Model” and so on) since it contains no “setting” per se. As Pyle said in the Drexel course catalogue:
In this class, departing essentially from the ordinary work of academic schools in studying from the living figure, the model is costumed and posed in some suggestive action, and the student is instructed to draw the figure that it may be introduced into a picture.
Or, as he put it another (yet, perhaps still convoluted) way:
The purpose here is to instruct the student in the necessary technical methods to be used in representing the draped human figure. The processes required to properly draw the draped figure are so different from those demanded in the rendition of other kinds of academic work that it has been found necessary to require proficiency in this before advancing the student to the final branch of instruction.
Although Pyle did not pick Betts’ study for the second annual School of Illustration show in the spring of 1898, another student, Cornelia Greenough, exhibited “The Cavalier, 1650,” which may have come from the same pose. (Betts' “Colonial Figure, 1740” was shown, however, as well as his “Peace and War,” “Study of a Head - Emperor,” and “The Highwayman.”)

And now here’s something representative of “the final branch of instruction” - i.e. the Illustration Class:

Although this one is not titled, I would call it “The Priest and the Piper.” Why? Because two other Pyle students, Sarah S. Stilwell and Bertha Corson Day, exhibited pictures of that name in the May 1899 student show at Drexel and Pyle (who I’m sure wrote the text of the catalogue) said:
The subject was painted as class work with the purpose of having one of the pictures used in Harper’s Weekly [sic] Hallowe’-en number. Of all the class work, the best two examples were chosen. The above two were submitted to Harper’s Weekly, and the drawing by Miss Stilwell was selected as being the most available for publication.
Now, compare Betts’ with Stilwell’s picture, which was published in Harper's Bazar (not Harper's Weekly) for November 5, 1898. There it’s called “A Vision on All-Hallows Eve” and it illustrates a playlet by Pyle himself, titled “The Priest and the Piper: A Halloween Fantasy”...

“A Vision on All-Hallows Eve” by Sarah S. Stilwell (1898)

And while we’re on the topic, the Brandywine River Museum has a painting by Caroline Louise Gussmann, which may have been born out of the same knock-kneed piper pose. (In fact, there may well be a score of similar images out there - and the same goes for Betts’ cavalier picture.)

“Tipsy Piper” by Caroline Louise Gussmann

This next and last one is dated November 1898, which may have been after Betts left Drexel. But the Pyle influence is still very much in evidence - and since one of Betts’ compositions was exhibited in the May 1899 show, perhaps he studied with Pyle for a while after the summer session of 1898. This looks less like a class piece than a bona fide illustration, though I have yet to identify if, when, or where it was published.

And in case you’re inclined to learn more about these or see several other works by Betts, please look here.

Would that I could snag them myself!


kev ferrara said...

Those two near-identical pieces are fascinating... that Pyle would, it seems, provide the basis for the composition and then ask the students to project themselves into it, flesh it out and bring it to an professional level of finish. The contest probably provided Pyle a very good sense of which of his students were ready to move forward and what the weakness were among the others.

I love Sarah Stillwell's work. She is really under-rated in the history of illustration, imho. She really took Pyle's teaching and flew her own way with it. Equally original as the top dozen Pyle Proteges (Wyeth, Dunn, Everett, J. W. Smith, Green, Aylward, Oakley, Oakley, Schoonover, Becher, etc.)

Great stuff...


Ian Schoenherr said...

OOPS! Looking at my records, I should note that a picture by Miss Gussmann called “The Piper and the Fairies” was shown in the “First Exhibition” of the School of Illustration in May-June 1897. Perhaps this was her “Tipsy Piper” - which would take it out of the running as a companion piece to those titled “The Priest and the Piper” made the following year.

Ian Schoenherr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Schoenherr said...

Yes - Pyle would provide the models, costumes, key props, and suggest a setting and, perhaps, even a basic composition for his pupils to flesh out into a publication-worthy painting. This “class work” was very much a part of his “Class in Illustration” curriculum, at least in the Drexel days.

So we have different pictures of a pirate telling sea stories to a fresh-faced youth (I'll post the two - of three - known variants sometime), or different pictures of Thomas Jefferson reading a draft of the Declaration of Independence to Benjamin Franklin by both Clyde DeLand and Elizabeth Shippen Green (and several others, no doubt, though I only know of theirs), etc., etc..

And we even have some photos of the pupils working on such things.

Phoebe said...

I would just like to express appreciation for your post regarding John Betts. I am his cousin (several generations removed), and have shared this blog with family members. Seeing his illustrations brought to present day attention is special, along with his ties to Chadds Ford and the Pyle & Wyeth connections. Thank you again.

Ian Schoenherr said...

Thanks for reading and sharing this.

I should note that the paintings are still available in case anyone is interested in acquiring them. Go to:

I hope they can find a good home.