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.

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