Thursday, March 22, 2012

Howard Pyle’s Birthplace: A Crack in the Case

Two years ago I talked about why I believed that Howard Pyle was born in a house on Market Street, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, in Wilmington, Delaware. You can read about it and see some pictures here. Yesterday, a new piece of evidence - which seems to support my theory - caught my eye:
The most intriguing thing about this is that it was written by Pyle’s sister, Katharine. It appeared in her syndicated history, “The Story of Delaware,” in the magazine section of The Sunday Morning Star - a.k.a. The Delmarva Star - on November 9, 1924.

Although there are some problems with the piece (particularly with some of the dates), I’m inclined to take her statement - “Howard Pyle was born in an old house on Market street in Wilmington” - at its word. And, despite its flaws, this brief biography of her brother - with whom she had a somewhat conflicted relationship - is worth reading, so I’ve quoted it in full, below.

Of course, Katharine Pyle was no mean artist and writer herself, and she’s presently the focus of an extensive exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum.

by Katharine Pyle

Conclusion of Chapter on “Famous Men”

1853-1912 [sic 1911]

Howard Pyle was born in an old house on Market street in Wilmington, and it was in Wilmington the greater part of his life was spent.

Even as a child he showed a talent for drawing. The blank places and margins in his school books were filled with sketches, the most of them made in hours when he was supposed to be studying.

At eighteen [sic sixteen] he was sent to an art school in Philadelphia and a few years later he set off for New York to seek his fortune.

He was ambitious to support himself, and after he once began to earn money he made up his mind that he would not ask his father for further help. At times he had scarcely enough money to buy art materials or pay for his models, but he held to his determination, and before long his name became known as a rising illustrator. Publishers spoke of him as one of the most promising among the younger artists.

In 1878 [sic 1879] he came back to Wilmington to live and soon after he married. Already his reputation as an artist had been made, but his fame as a writer came later. He had written quite a number of verses and short stories but his book of “Robin Hood” was the beginning of his real reputation in that line. As years went on still other books were written, - “The Wonder Clock.” “Otts [sic Otto] of the Silver Hand,” “The Garden Behind the Moon,” “Twilight Land” and others. The last of all was the King Arthur Series. All these are now child classics and are rich in illustrations done by his own hand.

Some of his tales were dictated to his stenographer as he stood at his easel painting, but he found this double work wearisome after a time, and in his later years he never attempted it.

He loved to have someone read to him as he drew or painted. Hour after hour was spent by his stenographer in reading about tales of pirates or adventure: or perhaps she read to him one of Trollope’s novels, or a book of Swedenborg, for he was of the Swedenborgian religion, and the influence of his belief was shown, not only in his life, but in his pictures and writings as well.

His work hours were long. They did not always end with the daylight. Sometimes he worked at home in the evenings over some delicate bit of pen-and-ink or a wash drawing while his wife read to him.

Besides his illustrating and writing he did a number of mural decorations.

The amount of work he turned out was enormous; in all he produced over three thousand pictures and decorations.

In 1893 [sic 1894] he was asked to teach a class in illustration at the Drexel Institute, Philadelphia. It was the first class of its kind in this country and proved a great success.

Out of it grew Mr. Pyle’s Summer School at Chadd’s Ford.

Later he gave up his classes at the Drexel. He built studios about his own for some of his students; and others who had followed him to Wilmington for the sake of his teaching, rented rooms or buildings near by.

Many of the men and women who studied under him in those years are among the most famous illustrators of the day.

In 1911 [sic 1910] Mr. Pyle set sail with his family, intending to spend a year or more abroad. But from this journey he never returned. He died in Florence the following year.

Since then a great number of his pictures have been bought by the people of Wilmington. A society called “The Fine Arts Society of Wilmington” [sic The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts] was formed with the express purpose of keeping them together, caring for them and exhibiting them at certain times.

Now a special room in the Wilmington Public Library has been built for them, and there they have been hung and can be seen any time. It is probably the largest collection there is of any one man’s work, and it stands as a greater memorial to the art of Howard Pyle than the most imposing monument that could have been built.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Howard Pyle Tiffany Window

In 1893, Howard Pyle designed a stained-glass window which was to be fabricated by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company.

“Designed” might not be the precise word: Pyle didn’t so much design the window as paint a picture that was, in essence, “translated” by Tiffany’s stained-glass artisans.

The window was destined for - and, presumably, commissioned by - the Colonial Club of New York, which had moved into a handsome new building on Broadway and 72nd Street the previous year. The subject was Anthony Van Corlaer, and the work has generally been known by the title “Antony Van Corlear [sic], the Trumpeter of New Amsterdam”. Then again, it could be argued that the “official” title is that which Pyle lettered on the work itself:


(That title might not be too reliable, however: “My Latin is very loose,” Pyle later wrote (in reference to a mistake in the first printing of his Story of King Arthur), “and I am afraid that I always depend too much on the text reader to help me with that - as well as with my dreadful spelling.”)

At any rate, Pyle seems to have been proud of his painting: on March 18, 1893 he welcomed invited guests to his Wilmington studio to take a look at it before it was shipped off. It was subsequently shown at the Tiffany studios, 333 Fourth Avenue, New York, February 25-26, 1897, and at the First Annual Exhibition of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, May 2-31, 1898.

But the painting has since gone missing. We can take a look at it, however, courtesy of an article on “Window Making as an Art” by William H. Thomas in The Munsey Magazine for December 1901.

Granted, it’s in black and white, but at least we can see the general scheme - not to mention a great many of the painterly details that were “lost in translation” - perhaps because they were deemed unnecessary or impossible to replicate in glass. (Note, for instance, Pyle’s rendering of the boots.)

The window was completed and installed in a Colonial Club stairway sometime that year or the next. The American Architect and Building News for December 29, 1894 described it thus:
At the head of the first flight is a Tiffany window, quite expressive of the Club - Antony Van Corlear sits jovial, surrounded by laughing maidens, who fill his glass and flatter his bachelor vanity, while in the tablets on either side we read the tale, as set forth in the “Knickerbocker’s History”:

“But it was a moving sight
To see ye buxom lasses;
How they hung about ye Doughty
Antony Van Corlear;
For he was a jolly rosy-faced
Lusty bachelor
Fond of his joke and withal
A desperate rogue among ye women!”

A humorous and pleasing thing to greet one on entering the Club!
But in 1903 the clubhouse went into foreclosure and over the next century the building underwent a series of modifications and renovations before ultimately being demolished in 2007.

Fortunately, the window weathered these storms: somewhere along the line it was removed and on March 30, 1984 it was auctioned by Christie’s in New York and purchased by the Delaware Art Museum. It measures 65.5 x 39.5 inches, and Pyle’s painting most likely is - or was - of similar dimensions. Maybe it weathered some storms, too, and will show up one day.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

“Come, come, your Future Majesty! Cheer up!”

Another long-lost Howard Pyle painting is about to go on the block at Scottsdale Art Auction on March 31, 2012. It’s Lot 322.

“Come, come, your Future Majesty! Cheer up!” illustrated “Eden-Gates” by Justus Miles Forman in Harper’s Monthly Magazine for March 1905. And then it went missing - until now. As far as I know, Pyle never exhibited this 24 x 16" oil on canvas. It’s a nicely painted piece: I particularly appreciate his handling of the tapestry (and wonder if he based it on something in particular) and the carpet - not to mention the paneling, the carved chair, and even the table’s claw-foot that peeks out from under the drooping table cloth. All so loosely painted, but dead on.

The monk (Brother Aurelius), by the way, bears an uncanny resemblance to Pyle’s student Harvey Dunn. This might be coincidental, however, since Dunn only arrived in Wilmington the previous fall - though he is known to have posed for Pyle not long after joining the school. For comparison, here’s Dunn as a much older man via Picture It: Observations, Inspiration and Lessons about Illustration Art.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Anniversary Song

I have no idea what this sounded like, but it was written and sung by Howard Pyle’s students at his 50th birthday banquet on March 5, 1903:

Here's to the friend whom we all hold dear,
May he live long.
Give him a cheer for his golden year,
Sing him a song.
Here's to the friends who are his true friends,
Honest and firm and true.

Sing it again, boys, sing it again, boys,

Louder -

CHORUS: - Palms of victory, palms of glory,
Palms of victory he has won.
Palms of victory, palms of glory,
Palms of victory he has won.

Here's to the work of the future years,
Always the best.
Here's to the men he has gathered here
From east and west.
May the seed of his work remain,
Honest and firm and true.

Sing it again, boys, sing it again, boys,

Louder -

CHORUS: - Palms of victory, palms of glory,
Palms of victory he has won.
Palms of victory, palms of glory,
Palms of victory he has won.

Belated Birthday Wishes

A happy birthday to Howard Pyle, born 159 years ago today in Wilmington, Delaware. (And I still think it happened at 224 Market Street.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

“Can’t you see ’em twicet?”

Macarooned” “Marooned” by Howard Pyle (1909)

The Delaware Art Museum’s lovely, landmark show, Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered, closes today. Fortunately, it will reappear this June at the Norman Rockwell Museum.

One hundred years ago this month, in March 1912, an exhibition featuring many of the same pictures was mounted by The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, which had been formed in direct response to Pyle’s death the previous November. That show, held in the ballroom of the Hotel du Pont on Market Street, stayed up for only a couple of days, but it was a tremendous hit. “GREAT CROWDS VIEW PICTURES,” said one newspaper. “About 10,000 Saw the Howard Pyle Art Collection During Yesterday. MANY COULD NOT GET IN.”

An article about the show later appeared in The Outlook for June 1, 1912. Although unsigned, rumor has it that Pyle’s student Ethel Pennewill Brown was the author (a.k.a. “The Spectator”). And I'm going to quote it in full, here, since it so well describes the universal enthusiasm that Pyle’s work could generate - and can still generate, when given the chance.



Both entrance halls of the big office building, running in from two streets, were jammed with people - every kind of people, from white-haired men to infants in arms. The three elevators were plying as fast as they could to the eleventh floor, but the crowd thronged in far too fast for them to handle. “And it’s only beginning,” said the attendant in charge. “You ought to have seen them yesterday evening at about nine o’clock! It's only a quarter of eight now, and it’ll get worse from now on.” The Spectator was glad he had arrived early. Also, he was glad to see that for once a prophet was honored in his own country; for the swift shuttles of the elevators were taking up all Wilmington to look at the collection of pictures by Howard Pyle, the artist who had lived all his life in the busy manufacturing city of the Diamond State.


Never was there a better citizen than Howard Pyle, or a better friend. Therefore a group of his friends had organized this exhibit of all the pictures that he had left, that the whole city might see them, and that, if possible, they might be secured as a nucleus for an art gallery for the town. It was thus not an ordinary picture show, but a peculiarly personal and popular one. The Spectator, who counts the remembrance of Howard Pyle’s friendship as one of the privileges of life, met at the very door of the big ball-room on the top floor, where the show was held, others of an intimate circle who were serving as ushers and explaining the pictures to those who asked for information. “I’ve been taking small boys around all day,” one woman said, smiling, “and it’s been such fun! They want to know all about! ‘The Taking of Cartagena,’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and ‘The Battle of Germantown,’ and ‘Bunker Hill,’ and ‘The Salem Wolf,’ and ‘The Triumph of War,’ and ‘Thomas Jefferson.’ History isn’t my strong point, and several of them have corrected me. Not one boy has been troublesome or mischievous, and yet some of them have been regular little street boys - colored ones, too, among them. I shall never again think that art doesn’t interest the masses. Why,” to a nine-year-old, ragged and tousled, who came marching in with two younger boys tagging on to him, “haven’t you been here to-day already?”


“Yes, lady,” said the boy, shyly. “But I'd like to see ’em again, and here’s Joe hasn’t seen ’em yet, nor his brother. Can't you see ’em twicet?”

“Of course you can,” said the usher. “Which one do you like the best, out of them all?”

The urchin hesitated not a second. “That feller on the ship in the storm,” he said, pointing to the Flying Dutchman staggering on the slanting, streaming, gale-swept deck. The crowd was already three deep before it, but the little fellows wormed their way in and stood hand in hand gazing at the canvas. “I don’t suppose they have ever had a chance to see a good painting before in their lives,” said the usher. “That’s the interesting thing - to see the people here that one would never think would care for pictures or come. But they do come; there were six thousand here yesterday, and we didn’t expect five hundred! We’ve had four infants in arms, and three pet dogs, and several people on crutches, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some one come in on a stretcher rather than miss it!”


And still they came. A solid wave flowed into the wide door of the high-arched ball-room, so that soon the committee had to stand there and direct the people to “Keep to the left, and move on all the time, please.” White-haired men and women, young couples bringing the baby, high school girls and boys, fashionably dressed women, laboring men, city officials, Poles, Italians, Negroes, Russian Jews, sisters of charity, deaconesses, leading clergymen, shopgirls, saloon and sporting men, art students, and boys, and more boys - a whole community, in fact, was surging up from the street to see the work of a beloved citizen as well as a famous artist. It was what America’s greatest illustrator would have loved to see - the human impulse, the response of the people to an art that reached them. For they did not glance at the pictures and pass on. They did not stand, as at the usual cultivated “private view,” with their backs to the pictures and talk to each other. They moved along slowly, so slowly that they had to be fairly torn away from picture after picture by the hovering committee. The crowded line, five and six deep, all around the spacious hall wanted to see every picture, and stay a while before this and that especially appealing one.


It was a fine group of canvases - full of color and fire and imagination. Howard Pyle’s Quaker blood made him a mystic, and also, by a paradox, sent him headlong on the trail of adventure and romance. His last picture - brought back from Florence unfinished and unsigned - was here: a heaving sea of iridescent blue and green, a cold moon, and slippery rocks, from which a mermaid siren, glittering, mysterious, alluring, winding her white arms about the young fisher-lad, was dragging him down, down, into the deadly depths below the white lacing foam. Across the room, in all the glory of a mellow sunset, the marooned pirate, crouched on the island sands, his head sunk on his hands, sat desolate while the screaming sea-birds wheeled overhead. Revolutionary scenes, mediaeval legends, colonial lovers and witches and sailors, bearded pirates dividing the spoils of cities or grappling treasure galleons, drew the eye and stirred the imagination. Exquisite black-and-white filled panel after panel, bold, minute, fascinating to linger over. The variety, the vigor, and the charm of the work were amazing.


“We didn’t have a catalogue, or put a rope railing in, because it was only for two days, and we never dreamed the whole town would come,” explained one of the committee. “We thought a few hundred, especially interested, would come and see what was here, and that a sentiment could be created for buying the collection. There are ninety-nine oils here, and then the black-and-whites and a few water-colors. Outside of the large mural paintings done for various public buildings in other States, these fairly represent the artist’s best work, and they are all in the market. If the little Italian towns of long ago could hold on to the pictures of their local artists, and so come to have galleries that travelers visit in thousands every year, there is no reason why American towns to-day should not begin to do the same thing. We are trying for a new free library building for Wilmington, and we want an art gallery in connection with it, with these for a nucleus. This crowd looks as if public sentiment will be running strong our way.”


It did indeed look so. The ushers at the door were fairly overwhelmed, and at last the order was given for the elevators to cease running. It was reported from below that the crowd was standing out in the street. The crush was now pressing the people fairly against the pictures, so it seemed better to let them wait in the street than come up and endanger the canvases. “Oh, dear, look at that woman’s hat-pin!” cried a watchful usher. “Won’t you please, Mr. Brown, go over there and call to her either to take out her hat-pin or keep her head slanted away from the canvas?” Mr. Brown obligingly pushed over, and the colored girl, whose enormous hat was pierced by a steel skewer with some six projecting inches of bare steel, giggled and threw her head far on the required slant, thereby knocking a meek and inoffensive man out of his place, but saving the pictures.


“We had the name, on a typewritten slip, pasted on the frame of each picture,” the Spectator was told. “But the crowd got so close to read the names that, we were afraid some of the near-sighted people would injure the canvas, and we took them all off. So the public can call them what they please. That wonderful one of the pirate abandoned on the island of the Spanish Main - ‘Marooned’ - is a great favorite. But many have called it ‘Macarooned,’ and enjoyed it just as much. Several men have come up and asked, ‘Which is the most expensive picture, please?’ One girl wanted to know ‘if the artist had a right to sign a picture with ships in it and call it an original picture, when he had the ships right there to draw from?’ Half a dozen school-children are going to write compositions about their favorite pictures. It seems to me that I never have thought of art as a thing that is alive and means something to all kinds of people, as I have these two days.”


The Spectator felt that way that night, too. He stayed to the end - until the lights were turned low so as to get the people to leave. They tramped off to the descending elevators - tired-looking men and women with another day’s work ahead of them, sleepy boys who still wanted to take another look at “Bunker Hill,” or “Thomas Jefferson,” or “The Mermaid,” or “The Pilgrimage of Truth,” or “The Burning Galleon,” or “The Taking of Cartagena.” Ten thousand of them had seen the pictures that day, in addition to the six thousand the day before - about one-fifth of the entire population, young and old. And yet some people think there is no future for American art! The Spectator is sure, after seeing that demonstration, that Wilmington will get its art gallery, and that the pictures of Howard Pyle will be a proud and prized community possession for all time in the old city where the Quaker artist was so beloved a citizen.