In his autobiography, Time Exposure, the celebrated photographer and artist William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) said:
After our marriage [on October 8, 1873, in Cincinnati] Emilie and I went to New York for a few days.... Following our brief whirl in the metropolis we went on to Baltimore for another few days, where I had the pleasure of meeting many of Emilie's relatives and friends. Then we proceeded to Washington and a winter of work for me.“Emilie” was Emilie Painter (1841-1918), and since the extended Painter family was a pretty tight-knit group in those days, I take it for granted that “many of Emilie's relatives” included her aunt Margaret Churchman (Painter) Pyle (1828-1885) - and Margaret’s then 20-year-old son, Howard.
Yes, that Howard. But damned if Jackson couldn’t mention his first-cousin-in-law by name! Especially since their connection was more than tangential: in a 1906 letter to Jackson, Pyle wrote, “I often think of you and how that it was you who gave me my first knowledge of how to do practical work. You have acted an important part in establishing me in a very happy life.”
Strong words, yet Pyle didn’t acknowledge his debt to Jackson anywhere else I’ve looked, and - so far, at least - Pyle’s biographers have been silent on the topic. The same goes for Jackson’s biographers. So, after reading Pyle’s intriguing comment and realizing his genealogical connection to Jackson - but otherwise making no real headway in putting the two men together - I tracked down one of Jackson’s great-granddaughters. In a 1995 letter to me she said:
I thought I would write and tell you the story of how Howard Pyle asked his Uncle [sic] - my great-grandfather - if it would be wise for him (Howard Pyle) to take a course in life that would lead to art. He asked that of my great-grandfather because he was older and although my great-grandfather did not take up painting and illustration so much until he was in his 90s still he was an excellent illustrator and famous for his photographs.That’s pretty vague, as were some follow-ups with her. Recently, however, I noticed this news item from the Detroit Free Press of November 13, 1911:
My great-grandfather, William Henry Jackson, sent him a reply in the affirmative. He did not see why Howard would not do well in this line of work. My Father told me this story many times...
FAMOUS ARTIST WHO DIED ABROAD WAS RELATIVE OF DETROITERSStill, Pyle stated that Jackson “gave” him “knowledge” - not mere “encouragement” - which would imply that Jackson had actually taught Pyle something. (Although it’s an obvious choice, I doubt Pyle meant “photography” - though he did take photos and use them in his work later on.) And as for the confounding term “practical work”, in a 1903 interview, Pyle tried to explain:
Howard Pyle, the American illustrator whose death occurred in Florence, Italy, last Thursday, was one of the country’s greatest magazine artists, and it was largely due to the encouragement given him as a young man by a Detroiter, W. H. Jackson, 55 Alger avenue, that Pyle decided to embark upon an artistic career, which later brought him fame and large financial returns.
Mrs. Jackson, who was a daughter of the late Dr. Painter, of Baltimore, Md., was first cousin to the dead artist, who was a son of her father’s sister. In 1873, Mrs. Jackson’s husband was connected with a well known government geological survey and his duties brought him to Wilmington, Delaware, the home of Pyle, on many occasions. Pyle at that time was 20 years old, and was seriously contemplating an artistic career.
“One day he brought a drawing to me and asked me what I thought of it,” said Mr. Jackson, who himself is an artist of ability, “I saw that young Pyle had great possibilities, and told him to continue his studies. I advised him to send the drawing to the Harpers in New York. He did so, but the drawing was not accepted. I continued to encourage him, however, and later his talent found for him a regular position on the Harpers’ staff....”
The hardest thing for a student to do after leaving an art school, is to adapt the knowledge there gained to practical use - to do creative work, for the work at an art school is imitative. That is why so many go into portrait painting. When I left the art school [c.1872] I discovered, like many others, that I could not easily train myself to creative work, which was the only practical way of earning a livelihood in art. Nor was there anything like the present field. Not discouraged, but being offered a position by my father in his leather business in Wilmington I availed myself of it and during my spare time created illustrations, stimulated my imagination and worked assiduously on drawings I never submitted.He goes on to mention his Chincoteague article and that “on its publication I felt my art was of some practical use”. So while “practical work” has a dry, kind of technical ring, Pyle connoted “practical” with “creative”, and other uses or variants of the term in his (and his students’) writings indicate that it had more to do with illustration, or, to put it broadly, with making “useful” pictures that a publisher would pay for and “that shall interest the great world beyond [the artist’s] narrow ken” - i.e. fellow artists stuck in their insular studio-worlds, who know only art, not Nature, and who are wowed by artificial “tricks of technical facility”, etc.. (I’ll append below some other examples of what “practical” meant in Pylean vernacular which may help clarify things - or not!)
So maybe Jackson critiqued Pyle’s pictures, suggesting “practical” ways to make them more appealing to publishers and the general public, and more easily reproduced by the as-yet crude methods employed by printers. Or maybe his role was more like Pyle’s to his own students - and that it was not so much about technical instruction (which Pyle had already received, anyway), but about “encouraging” him to open up to and connect with the pictorial possibilities all around him. As Pyle described his course in “Practical Illustration” in 1895, “I can tell little or nothing as to how to do the work technically. That which I try to teach relates more to the qualities of imagination, of observation and of realization.” Or, as he put it more poetically a few years later, he tried “to show the student how to throw his mind and soul into the beauties of nature that surround him; how to understand and to sense and to sympathize with human passion”. I gather it was some kind of hybrid.
At any rate, the two had plenty of time to get to know each other. From about 1872 to 1876, Pyle was working for his father in Wilmington. Jackson, meanwhile, as photographer for the Hayden Survey, spent only his summer months out west, but was based in Washington from November 1873 to July 1874 and from October 1874 to July 1875. He was in Wilmington itself on October 17, 1874: the Wilmington Daily Tribune noted that he had “paid a short visit to this city on Saturday, returning to Washington on the midnight train, in the course of which he communicated many interesting particulars of the adventurous survey from which his party is the first to return.” In the fall of 1875 Jackson was east again, working throughout the winter on the Survey’s dioramas and displays to be shown at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which opened in May 1876. And he was on duty at the Centennial during its run and returned to Washington when it closed that fall - by which time Pyle had embarked on his career in New York.
But when and where and how frequently and for how long young Pyle met and talked with Jackson is an open question. I once dreamt of finding evidence that Pyle had tagged along on one of Jackson’s westward journeys, or that Jackson had hired Pyle to help him construct the Centennial dioramas, but after rooting through various papers and archives, I came up short. And so we’re left with murky anecdotes and rumors of lost conversations. But maybe some new, hard data will come to light, soon.
Some Notes on “Practical Work”
The very name of Pyle’s first class at the Drexel Institute in 1894 was “A Course in Practical Illustration in Black and White” in which his lectures would be “followed by systematic lessons in Compositon and Practical Illustration, including Technique, Drawing from the Costumed Model, the Elaboration of Groups, treatment of Historical and other subjects with reference to their use of Illustrations.” Indeed, at the very first lecture, the very first thing Bertha Corson Day recorded Pyle as saying was, “Accuracy of drawing must be learned in schools - freedom in practical work.”
“I think my lectures are useful, but I think they only give in theory that which I want here to render practical to all. There are in Europe classes similar to this that I suggest, but none, I think, that devote the attention of the students to accomplish such really practical results as those at which I aim.” (Pyle to Dr. James MacAlister, April 7, 1896)
“Without meaning to criticise Mr Hammitt’s methods, I do not think they are of a sort to advance you in any real or practical knowledge of illustrative art.” (Pyle to Stanley Arthurs, September 11, 1896)
“...being an illustrator, and dealing with a more practical side of art, I stand, as it were, with only one foot planted in the Israel of academic art, the other leg being implanted in the Philistia of the outside world.” (from “A Small School of Art” by Howard Pyle, 1897)
“In this Class [in Illustration] I choose some special composition, trying to make it as practical as possible, submitting it to some illustrated magazine or newspaper, obtaining for it an order and then setting my students to paint this composition into a picture. The best one of these pictures I find sells with never-failing success; and so the student learns not only how to render nature in full color, but also what are the points that make a picture practical and useful. ...whenever I see a composition that strikes me as practical I explain why it is practical and advise my student to submit it to this or that paper.... I find that even so far as I have gone that our students are the best, and that the Academic students from elsewhere have an enormous mass to unlearn before they can begin to learn real and practical methods of work.” (Pyle to Eric Pape, May 26, 1898)
“My first object shall be to teach them to paint the draped and costumed model so that it shall possess the essentials of a practical picture.... My experience is that within a year of such teaching the pupil will be sufficiently grounded in a practical knowledge of painting to be able to embark upon illustrative work.” (Pyle to Edward Penfield, March 17, 1900)
“From the standpoint of a practical worker, it would seem to be a very plain statement of fact, that, if a cobbler does not sell his shoes, it is because they do not fit the feet of other men, and it would seem an equally natural inference to suppose that the very general failure to sell American pictures is because they do not fit the ideals of American men and women.” (from “The Present Aspect of American Art from the Point of View of an Illustrator” by Howard Pyle - a paper read before the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, April 25, 1902)
“Not long ago we said good bye to one of the boys [Francis Newton] who is going to New York to start in on practical work.” (Allen Tupper True to his sister, June 27, 1902)
“He said he was very sorry that I did not come earlier for my work was very practical and looked promising...” (N. C. Wyeth to his mother, October 27, 1902)
Pyle “congratulated me upon my summer's work and told me that mine was the strongest - most practical and on the whole the best of all.” (N. C. Wyeth to his mother, October 19, 1903)
“...that which art students most need is the cultivation of their imagination and its direction into practical and useful channels of creation...” (Pyle to W. M. R. French, April 13, 1905)
“Cleverness seems to be substituted for exactitude, and the result is very unsatisfactory so far as any real and practical results are concerned. It is very discouraging to one who holds in view a real, material, and vital advancement in the practical uses of art to meet so many young artists, who, having passed from the schools, seek in vain for opportunities whereby they may earn a modest living...” (Pyle to James Hulme Canfield, April 17, 1905)
“It has been unfortunate that the fees charged for attendance at the League should have been so large as to have deterred many artists in practical lines of work from coming to me for help and advice.” (Pyle to Hugo Ballin, May 8, 1905)
“...the education given by the academies to the young artists who come to me for instruction has to be unlearned before I can impart the facts that are necessary to make their art of practical use in the world...” (Pyle to W. M. R. French, June 22, 1905)
“I am trying to push my work thro to a finish and get into practical work.” (Edwin Roscoe Shrader to Thomas Wood Stevens, February 11, 1906)