Wednesday, November 9, 2011
A Friend Remembers Howard Pyle
Howard Pyle grinning in Italy, a few months before his death in 1911
Almost immediately after Howard Pyle died - 100 years ago today - his friends and acquaintances began to record their thoughts about him. I’ve always been fond of one particular reminiscence written and published on the very day of Pyle’s death in the Boston Evening Transcript. The author was the journalist Edward Noble Vallandigham, who worked at the Wilmington newspaper Every Evening, The Day of Baltimore, the New York Mail & Express, etc., and who was a fellow member (with Pyle) of the Quill and Grill Club and Pyle’s “esteemed friend of many years standing”. He later wrote the book Delaware and the Eastern Shore: Some Aspects of a Peninsula Pleasant and Well Beloved (1922). A few of Vallandigham’s details aren’t quite right, but, overall, his portrait of Pyle captures something a little different than we see in, say, the reminiscences of Pyle’s students...
When I first made the acquaintance of Howard Pyle, back in the middle seventies of the last century, he was a full-faced young man three or four years under thirty, and already, after a period of apprenticeship to severe economy, in New York, married, living at Wilmington, and earning $5000 a year as illustrator and writer. He was a simple and extremely attractive young man, six feet tall, full chested, broad shouldered, and well featured, with a fine cranium, frank blue eyes and a ready smile. His home was in a big old house in a part of the city once fashionable, if anything in Quaker Wilmington deserved that description, but then beginning to be deserted for suburban and semi-urban quarters.
It was my good fortune soon after making Pyle’s acquaintance to set up house keeping with two college mates, both struggling young lawyers, one, Lewis C. Vandegrift, afterward highly successful and greatly beloved, but unhappily now dead more than ten years, and Charles M. Curtis of New England ancestry, who has since become chancellor of Delaware. To our extremely modest menage came a group of very good fellows of whom Pyle was one, and his house was a place of resort for our little household and some of our guests, notably Leighton Howe, a brother of M. A. DeW. Howe of this city, and a most delightful companion with whom one could have the liveliest kind of quarrel upon any topic under heaven.
As Pyle prospered in his work he built a studio in the upper part of the city, just off Delaware avenue, an agreeable residence street, and to this studio we were all invited from time to time for picnic suppers and the like. Pyle had as manservant about the studio an extremely black and altogether idle Negro boy named Ferdinand, and for thirty years he was accustomed to quote as an exquisite witticism my foolish inquiry as to whether Ferdinand were worth two in the bush. We were all rather young then.
For reasons not explicable upon any theory of social comfort Pyle then summered at Rehoboth, Del., a resort as hot as Tophet and infested with mosquitoes. Its sole attraction was a good bathing beach and a startlingly realistic mirage. The cottage, which he shared with his mother-in-law, the sweetest imaginable old lady, whose Quaker bringing up did not prevent her from offering welcome liquid refreshment after the bath, was the scene of a hospitality almost recklessly prodigal. Later Pyle abandoned Rehoboth and summered at Chadds Ford on the Brandywine, where he established a summer school of design, and still later he removed his place of residence to Delaware avenue, and enlarged his studio so as to provide room for his pupils, who had increased in number and would have overwhelmed him had he chosen to accept all comers.
The establishment of his school of illustration grew out of a long cherished plan to aid young men of promise toward realizing their artistic ideals. To this school nobody was admitted who did not give promise of real talent, and who was unwilling to devote himself solely to the work in hand. Pyle made no charge for his services as teacher, but permitted pupils to pay for the use of the studio and materials. The man who failed of industry was ruthlessly sent away, but the worker with real talent got as much of the teacher’s time as he chose to ask. Gradually Pyle gathered about him at Wilmington a little group of illustrators who earned their living by the art he had done so much to teach them, and who were privileged to claim his continued advice and criticism.
When Thomas F. Bayard went abroad as ambassador to the Court of St. James, he rented to Pyle his big, queer old mansion on the outskirts of Wilmington, the house in which Myra Clark Gaines, the New Orleans claimant, was born. Here, as in all his other homes, Pyle exercised a generous hospitality, and the place with its wide porches, big airy rooms, ample grounds and wide prospect was well suited to such a purpose. Pyle found it, however, a most expensive place of residence, as the terms of his rental bound him to necessary repairs which required a considerable outlay. A few years ago, by which time Pyle was earning a large income by his indefatigable work of various kinds, he was tempted by an extravagant offer for S. S. McClure to become art editor of McClure’s Magazine. He passed nearly half his time in New York looking after his work for the magazine, and on meeting him at the City Club soon after his employment began, I found him full of enthusiasm in his undertaking, and of ardent admiration for Mr. McClure. Not long after, however, news came that the arrangement had been discontinued. I fancy Pyle had become too firmly set in his own views of artistic propriety, to work well for another, and the exile from home, which he dearly loved, must have gone hard with a man of his temperament.
It was characteristic of Pyle to become greatly absorbed in ideas, projects and somewhat in persons. In religion he was a convinced Swedenborgian, and consequently much of a mystic. At one time he became deeply interested in the Single Tax, but he long ago ceased to care for Mr. George’s ideas. Private theatricals were one of his passions, and he gave himself to this amusement with something like abandon. He became some years ago an enthusiastic admirer of Mr. Roosevelt, and was several times entertained at the White House. Upon one of these occasions he met Mr. Taft, then of the cabinet, heard him talk of the Panama Canal, and came away deeply impressed with his easy mastery of a great subject. “He seemed,” said Pyle, “as familiar with that vast undertaking as I should be with the laying of a drain in my back yard.”
The years dealt most kindly with Pyle, and in his middle fifties he was one of the most delightful looking of men. His head, indeed, was gray where it was not bald, but his face was rosy, his carriage erect, and his expression one of ripe benevolence and delightful openness. When I last saw him I sat by as he worked at a picture in colors, and we talked as he painted, a double occupation not unusual with him. It was on this occasion that he laid down the axiom, “If your art cannot be great, make it useful.” This, I think, gave a hint of his real ambition, which was to be a creative painter in oils. His visit to Italy was with a view to the study of Italian art at first hand, and had he been spared a dozen years we might have seen a fruitful harvest from that new undertaking. His death leaves a great gap in the ranks of American illustrators, and he is a loss as well to American letters that will be especially felt by thousands of his youthful admirers. Pyle was a most interesting personality, a man of singular sweetness, purity and sanity, the relentless pursuer of his own best ideals, and a worker of prodigious and tireless energy.