Sunday, August 14, 2011

Some Thoughts on Howard Pyle: Imagining an American School of Art

My once-pristine copy of Howard Pyle: Imagining an American School of Art by Jill P. May and Robert E. May is now full of grubby scribbles and marginalia. So... what do I think?

Frankly, I was hoping for something, well, fatter: more thorough, more comprehensive. Then again, I’m a glutton for Pyle data, and that wasn’t necessarily the authors’ aim. Still, at 206 pages (plus notes and index) it’s a relatively slim book - plus the price is high and the illustrations are few.

Also, I would have preferred a more rigidly chronological structure, if only to better capture the arc of Pyle’s multifaceted life. The authors’ transitions often feel too abrupt or arbitrary to me, the arrangement of details and events sometimes seems jumbled, and there are notable gaps and omissions. But no doubt the “Pylean timeline” in my head holds too much sway: I have too many preconceived notions of where things “ought to be” and how much attention they should get.

That being said, the authors - drawing from countless previously untapped sources - do bring many new things about Pyle to light - and they put them into broader historical context than has been the norm. They also confront issues which Charles D. Abbott’s and Henry C. Pitz’s hagiographies avoid...

Like Pyle’s seemingly contradictory attitudes toward his female students. The authors go far in dismantling the accusation that Pyle was a just cold-hearted sexist when he chose to bar women from his school. Rather, they explain that he consistently (and not so typically for that era) nurtured and championed talent in whomever he saw it; yet, time and again, he noticed his female trainees’ talents - and his investment in developing them - stifled by “marriage possibilities and domestic responsibilities.” Thus, since the ever-practical Pyle “did not want to expend great effort teaching students who might drop out of the field,” he came to focus his teaching energies on men.

The authors are also unafraid to tackle Pyle’s views on race. To a Pyle enthusiast, this topic is troubling: he was, after all, a privileged, paternalistic white man from a border state, and his writings contain some insensitive, unreconstructed, and - yes - racist things. But the authors show that, despite his unfortunate comments, Pyle was usually (though not always) “color-blind” when depicting black people in his illustrations. They also bring up the surprising point that Pyle essentially made an “endorsement of racial equality in heaven” in his most personal and emotionally-charged book, The Garden Behind the Moon. Well, equal rights “in heaven” are one thing, in real life they’re another, and while the authors are not apologists for Pyle’s prejudices, they at least add useful new twists to the conversation.

They also put Pyle’s often inscrutable Swedenborgianism - and how it influenced his life and work - into sharper, yet nuanced focus. And - as the title of the book promises - they deal at considerable length with Pyle’s messianic, if quixotic, quest to generate a staunchly “American” school of art. Indeed, this is the book’s overarching theme. And even though Pyle’s mission pretty much failed, the authors devote a chapter to demonstrate how, in myriad ways, his legacy has lived on.

Of course, as with any ambitious project borne out of fugitive data culled from far-flung archives and forgotten publications, a number of factual errors are present. And while these may only be noticeable to, say, a pedantic Pyle zealot, I feel obliged to highlight some in an ersatz “errata slip”:
  • Page x: Richard Wayne Lykes wrote “Howard Pyle, Teacher of Illustration” in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, not William W. Hummel (who wrote the article immediately preceding Lykes’s in that same issue)
  • Page 3: Pyle only said that he lived in the “quaint old house of the colonial period” (known as “Green Hill”), not that he was born there. In fact, his father only purchased the property in August or September 1854. (See more on Pyle’s place of birth)
  • Page 5: Pyle “confided to his friend” Edmund Clarence Stedman, not Richard Watson Gilder
  • Page 9: Pyle actually “began his magazine career” with an illustration for his mother’s poem “The Reformer” in St. Nicholas (November 1875), not with “The Magic Pill” in Scribner’s Monthly (July 1876)
  • Page 10: In 1876, Pyle roomed in the same building as The Misses Marshall’s School for Young Ladies at 250 West 38th Street in New York, not “Forty-eighth Street.” Granted, Pyle himself made this mistake in his scrapbook and in a 1903 interview, and then Abbott and Pitz took it on faith
  • Page 17: Pyle brought a letter of introduction to the illustrator Frederick Stuart Church, not to “the renowned landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church
  • Page 26: “The Soldiering of Beniah Stidham” appeared in St. Nicholas for December 1892, not 1882
  • Page 35: Library of Universal Adventure by Sea and Land, edited by William Dean Howells and Thomas Sergeant Perry (not “Thomas Sargeant”), merely reused a Pyle illustration from 1880. And in Pyle’s April 13, 1890, letter to Howells, he says, “now that I have the pleasure of your acquaintance” - which indicates that they hadn’t known each other long. Further evidence suggests that they may only have met in January 1890
  • Page 47 and 120: Art editor Alexander W. Drake was not affiliated with any Scribner publications after 1881
  • Page 49: Pyle did not create “a pamphlet of his own” in reaction to Henry Mills Alden’s God in His World, An Interpretation: some years after Pyle’s death, Merle Johnson made a transcription (which contains significant errors) of Pyle’s March 30, 1890, letter to Alden and published it in booklet form as “Sabbath Thoughts”
  • Page 50: Pyle’s pen-and-ink drawings were for The One Hoss Shay (1891) and Dorothy Q (1892) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, not “a two-volume edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems” (although Pyle did contribute two illustrations to a set of Whittier’s works published at about the same time)
  • Pages 115-6 and 172: Pyle’s correspondent here is Henry Howard Harper of the Bibliophile Society, not J. Henry Harper of Harper & Brothers. Also, on page 125, it was Henry Howard Harper who asked the Pyles to dine at the hotel
  • Page 122: Samuel L. Clemens wrote his laudatory letter to Pyle on January 1, 1903, after reading no more than three installments of the serialized Story of King Arthur in St. Nicholas, not “after receiving a complimentary copy” of the book, published the following November
  • Page 157: Pyle could not have “produced a startling 20 percent of all the color illustrations appearing in Harper’s, Century and Scribner’s magazines between 1906 and 1910” because none of his work appeared in the latter two magazines during those years (but maybe I’ve misinterpreted the equation)
  • Page 175 (and Note 68): Pyle did not work “on a mural, despite lacking any commission” in Italy: the “major ‘decoration’” valued at $15,000 which Pyle “had hoped to place” in the St. Louis Public Library was the one he had painted for his Wilmington home in 1903-05
  • The color reproduction of “The Landing of Carteret” is of not of the mural itself, but of Pyle’s smaller, much less finished study
    Regarding some of the letters quoted - and here Pyle’s “dreadful chirography” is much to blame:
    • Page 39: Not drawl, but “crawl out from underneath the load”
    • Page 49: Not pitching, but “fetching a pocket full of religion”
    • Page 105: Pyle’s students did not give him “a chain made of real clam feet” but an “old claw-foot chair”
    I also don’t understand the rationale of referring to women by their middle and last names - i.e. Bertha Corson Day is called “Corson Day” (not simply “Day”) and Ellen Bernard Thompson is “Bernard Thompson” - especially when it causes more confusion than, I guess, it’s meant to prevent. Take this oddly constructed passage on page 94:
    Eventually, Bernard Thompson and Walter Pyle were married, and while he was alive, she became inactive, returning to her art career after his death. Corson Day would continue to exhibit at the Plastic Club for the next few years, but once she and Bates were married, her career goals ebbed. Corson Day and Bernard Thompson had romantic relationships and put their art careers aside to get married, though Corson Day would continue to exhibit at the Plastic Club for the next few years and Thompson would return to art career after her husband’s death.
    But these are the extreme examples, and although I could identify other “misdatings” and misspellings and so on, I’ll stop here. Again, they are, I suppose, relatively insignificant - and irritating only to the lunatic fringe of Pyle fandom.

    If it sounds like I’m being unduly hard on this book... I guess I am. My know-it-allness gets the better of me when I see inaccuracies perpetuated in print, and I’m probably too close to the subject to be truly objective. But, after stepping back a bit, I see the enormity of what the authors have accomplished.

    Howard Pyle called himself a “plain man”; others described him as “simple.” Well, maybe. If anything, I’ve found him to be an extraordinarily complex person, and the astonishing breadth of his acquaintance and interests and creative output - together with the sad fact that the bulk of his personal papers have been scattered or lost - make boiling down his life into a manageable 200 pages a nearly impossible task. The authors have succeeded, however, in harnessing a lot of ornery material - and presenting it admirably.

    Critical, perceptive, and well-researched writings about Pyle are rare: they would barely fill out a foot’s-worth of shelf-space. This book deserves a place among them. My nitpicking aside, Howard Pyle: Imagining an American School of Art is a huge leap forward in helping us understand who Pyle was, what inspired and motivated him, and where he fits into the history of art in America.

    1 comment:

    kev ferrara said...

    Glad you liked the book. I look forward to getting it. The intersection of his swedenborgianism and his illustration will be my greatest interest.