Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Valley Forge Picnic, 1899

There are few more iconic photographs of Howard Pyle and his pupils, perhaps, than the one shown here. Its appeal has a lot to do with Miss Bertha Corson Day’s over-the-shoulder gaze, inviting countless viewers into the scene, ever since the photo was taken 115 years ago.

In fact, by my reckoning, the photo was taken 115 years ago today, on August 20, 1899, in or en route to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

At the time, Pyle was conducting the second Summer School of Illustration under the auspices of the Drexel Institute. Their home base was Chadds Ford, but frequently they would mount their “wheels” (including a recently acquired tandem bicycle or two) or climb aboard a carriage and set off to explore the surrounding countryside, to observe the effects of color and light on the trees and streams and hills, to sketch - and to eat.

In a letter of Sunday, August 6, 1899, Pyle’s student Frank Schoonover wrote:
Next Sunday we all go to Valley Forge, some on wheels others in a 4 seated carriage - two tandems, Mr. Pyle steering one, I the other, he considers so he says, me the most skilled and strongest rider among the boys - except [Philip L.] Hoyt - who is a hard rider. Mr. Pyle’s ideas sometimes are a bit off color, and while I’m very far from being the best rider, still he thinks so - let him think.
“Next Sunday” indicates August 13, but the plans changed - The Philadelphia Record’s forecast that day was for “weather unsettled” - and Miss Day noted in her diary that the trip actually occurred on Sunday, August 20, 1899. It also happened to be the day she turned 24, but for some reason she “told no one here that it was my birthday.” Instead, she secretly celebrated it by “riding the tandem with Mr. Pyle in relays from here to the Forge and back. 50 miles. Home by moonlight” [the moon was full or nearly so on August 20, by the way] and they “did not reach home till after midnight.”

This photograph has been reprinted several times over the years, but some of the sitters have been misidentified. Here is my take, from left to right:
Philip L. Hoyt (with glasses)
Frank Schoonover (with cap)
Anna Whelan Betts (with turned-away face)
Howard Pyle (with cap and white turtleneck)
Robert Lindsay Mason (with dark hat)
Bertha Corson Day (looking at us)
Sarah S. Stilwell (with braided pony tail)
Annie Hailey (holding glass)
Emlen McConnell (with necktie)
Ellen Bernard Thompson (in profile)
faceless woman: probably Pyle’s secretary Anna W. Hoopes
Missing from the group are Stanley Arthurs and Clyde DeLand - one of whom was probably the photographer.

In researching this post, I noticed that the Bertha Corson Day Bates’ papers at Delaware Art Museum contain a print of the above photo, titled “Howard Pyle and students, picnicking par terre” and also one called “Pyle and students at picnic table, Valley Forge” - a cyanotype version of the photo below, which I spoke about here.

Having assumed the photo was taken somewhere in Chadds Ford, I didn’t trust the title, but now I see that it was indeed taken at Valley Forge and - I’ll wager - later in the day on August 20, 1899. The setting is the rear or east side of the Isaac Potts House, better known as Washington’s Headquarters.

Here is a photo of that side of the house (via, taken around the same time, but in winter and from the opposite point of view. But note the leaning tree, the stonework and shutters, and the white path:

Here, too, is another shot taken on the west side of the house, but showing the clapboard building seen in the Pyle class photo. That building can also be seen on page 88 of this document.

But why do I think the two photos of Pyle’s class were taken the same day? Because - as indicated in the papers of Schoonover and Day - it was the only journey to Valley Forge taken by the entire class in the summer of 1899. Plus, although folks didn’t change their clothes all that frequently in those days, there are many similarities in the outfits seen in both shots.

By the way, among other work being done by Pyle’s students at this time, Frank Schoonover was making his very first book illustrations for A Jersey Boy in the Revolution by Everett T. Tomlinson, published later that year by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. In fact, that same week, Schoonover - who had turned 22 the day before the Valley Forge trip - was painting the picture seen here, “A ball had crashed through the side.” It was the second of the set of four and his letters indicate that Pyle himself added a few brushstrokes - or more - to it.

Of course, Valley Forge was not unfamiliar territory for Howard Pyle: his earliest known visit was in 1879, when he was illustrating “Some Pennsylvania Nooks” by Ella Rodman Church for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (April 1880), and perhaps he went again in 1896 for his picture of George Washington and General Steuben, or when painting “My dear,” said General Washington, “Captain Prescott’s behavior was inexcusable” for “Love at Valley Forge” (The Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1896); and he had also visited earlier that summer of 1899 (on July 9, with Arthurs, Hoyt, and McConnell - perhaps on a test run). Some ten years later, he returned again with his wife, son Godfrey, and a few friends and left “his mark” in the Washington Memorial Chapel guestbook.

And not long after Pyle’s death, a few of his historical artifacts wound up there, too: according to the 1912 Historical and Topographical Guide to Valley Forge by William Herbert Burk, “The most recent acquisitions are from the Howard Pyle collection - original uniforms and costumes used by the artist in his studies of Colonial life.”


kev ferrara said...

Loved this post, Ian. And the photos really fascinate me. Everybody looks so healthy and intense, smart and friendly. Pyle is in good fighting shape, too.

Where other people dream of sailing to the sunset in the Caribbean or lounging poolside in Tuscany, to me, a summer month with the Pyle school would have been my kind of eden.

Ian Schoenherr said...

Absolutely. From reading the letters of the different students, it sounds like those summers from 1898 to 1903 were the best part of the Pyle school experience - especially because they could strip away the Victorian society/propriety stuff and get down to "real" things.

Anonymous said...

Ian, I like your theory that it's the same day. What is your identification of the sitters around the table? Based on your other IDs, I'm only able to guess about half of them: (starting at far left, moving around the table counter-clockwise) Mason, Hoopes?, (empty seat of photographer), Betts, McConnell, Stilwell, Pyle, (eclipsed -- Day?), (dunno with bow tie), (woman who doesn't look like the only woman left: Annie Hailey?), Schoonover?, Hoyt, Thompson at end of table?

— Roger Reed

Ian Schoenherr said...

I forgot that I hadn’t ID’d the sitters in this post, but in an earlier one. Here’s more or less what I said there: The photograph was probably taken by Frank Schoonover, since it otherwise shows all of the 1899 Summer School students. Maybe that’s his cap on the bench, marking his seat. Howard Pyle, is at the head of the table in the foreground. At the opposite end is his secretary, Anna W. Hoopes (with the hat and the dark bow tie). On Pyle’s left (from left to right) are Robert L. Mason, Annie L. Hailey (or Haley, a Drexel student who served as a model), Anna Whelan Betts, Emlen McConnell (with no jacket), and Sarah S. Stilwell (with the long braid). On Pyle’s right (from left to right) are: Philip L. Hoyt (with glasses), Stanley M. Arthurs, Ellen Bernard Thompson, Clyde O. DeLand (bow tie), and Bertha Corson Day (obscured by Pyle, but her hairstyle is distinctive).