Thursday, February 28, 2013

“It looks very much posed”

The above photograph, showing Howard Pyle with “The Evacuation of Charlestown” on his easel in his Wilmington studio, has now and then been dated 1897 and 1898.

But 1897 is incorrect because Pyle only started the painting in mid-1898: Frank Schoonover remembered that Pyle (his teacher at the time) was working on it during the Drexel Institute’s first Summer School of Illustration - which officially opened on June 23, 1898:
I recall that Mr. Pyle set up a very poor three-legged easel on the lawn in front of the house at Chadds Ford, and put his canvas on the easel. Miss Ellen Bernard Thompson...was painting something on the lower side of the road, and just beyond her was the Indian painter, Angel DeCora. There were some chairs and books of engravings of Colonial ships of the line out on the porch, and there were also the Pyle children playing around in the yard. The sky was very blue that day, with many floating clouds. Mr. Pyle asked me to fasten the canvas so that it would not shake, so I went back into the house and got the things needed.

Mr. Pyle then sat down on a kitchen chair and started to work under an apple tree, but he had no mahl stick. Then he said, “Frank, I see a fine straight sucker up there - climb up and cut it off.” I did so...

It was amazing to see him do this painting with so many distractions such as the children’s running around and so forth.... The painting has a shadow across the water like the shadow of the lawn, and the sky is as it was that day at Chadds Ford with the drifting clouds making shadows on the uneven lawn, which was much the color of the water in the picture. This was a lesson to all the students to interpret the things around them when painting.
“The Evacuation of Charlestown” was later packed up and hurried off to be photographed and made into a half-tone plate, just in time to appear in Scribner’s Magazine for September 1898. The Delaware Art Museum now owns the original painting (oil on canvas 23.25 x 35.25" - if you’re keeping score).

But back to the above photo: 1898 is probably the wrong date, too. Years ago, looking in a box at the Delaware Art Museum’s library, I saw - I think - two glass-plate negatives made by Cyrus Peter Miller Rumford. There, too, I saw Rumford’s scribbled notes stating that these were “Portraits of Howard Pyle for Home Journal ’99” and (provided I’m reading my own scribbles correctly) it seems that Rumford arrived with his camera at Pyle’s Wilmington studio at 3.00 p.m. one January day in 1899 and took a total of four photos.

Rumford, who had turned 26 that month, was a recent Harvard graduate (Class of 1897) and already a prize-winning photographer. And, apparently, either from his own or Pyle’s initiative he made the photos for an article in the April 1899 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal, titled “The Journal’s Artists in Their Studios” - but for some reason the magazine chose not to print them.

Pyle’s own opinion of the photos sounds mixed: on February 11, 1899, he dictated the following letter:
Wilmington, Del.

My dear Mr Rumford:

I am very much obliged to you for the photograph of myself in my studio. It looks very much posed, but that is the fault of the subject and not of the photographer. It was very kind of you to remember me.

Once more thanking you,

I am

Very truly yours

Howard Pyle

February eleventh.
I don’t know why Pyle says “the photograph” and not “the photographs” - maybe Rumford only sent a print of what he considered the best. But “very much posed” is about right: these two known photos show a seated Pyle - who usually stood at his easel - stiffly “at work” on the already-finished “Evacuation of Charlestown”.

I should note, too, that Pyle’s letter to Rumford was handwritten by Pyle’s secretary, Anna W. Hoopes, and although it appears to be signed by Pyle, the signature is, in fact, the work of Miss Hoopes as well. In a 1935 talk she explained:
When rushed at the end of the day with correspondence, [Mr. Pyle] often asked me to sign his letters; and I became so proficient at imitating his signature, that he once made me promise not to copy his handwriting, jokingly remarking that sometime I might want to sign his checks.


James Gurney said...

Good detective work, Ian. Especially fun to see one of the outtakes from the more famous portrait photo.

Unknown said...

Wow, i'm amazed at the accuracy that you were able to dig up. It's wonderful that you do that! Very interesting!

hcoyle said...

How did you know I'd be using that in my next Pyle talk? I knew the date seemed odd and sure enough you've sorted it out.

Ian Schoenherr said...

Happy to be of service!