Tuesday, January 24, 2012

“The Good Old Doctor”

Howard Pyle illustrated two books by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes for the 1891 and 1892 holiday seasons, so it was only natural that the publisher, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., would want him to illustrate the one slated for 1893.

Pyle, though, had second thoughts: this was around the time he declared that he “intended to do no book illustrations, except in connection with [his] own writings.” But Art Editor Winthrop Scudder - who was also Pyle’s close friend - urged him to take on the project. In a letter of January 24, 1893, Scudder wrote:
You are probably aware that in our plans for the coming year the Autocrat has taken the first place. In other words, this is our leading book. If it is not illustrated by you I fear it will have to take a much less prominent place in the line. You are in such perfect sympathy with Dr. Holmes, not only on his literary side, but on the humorous as well, that I have felt from the beginning that your work on this book would give you a great deal of pleasure, delight the good old doctor, and satisfy the general public, who are so well acquainted with the Autocrat.
Despite his reservations, Pyle accepted - and wound up doing 59 illustrations for the two-volume set, including 15 full-page paintings (such as this and this). Two of the latter group which haven’t gotten much attention are the portraits of Dr. Holmes shown here. Both have a distinctly (and no doubt deliberately) photographic look, and although Pyle didn’t make exact copies of photos, he did indeed adapt some. Like this daguerreotype:

And since this daguerreotype (like most) produced a mirror image of its subject, Pyle wisely reversed Dr. Holmes in his painting:

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