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Howard Pyle

On the American illustrator.


One frosty autumn day Howard Pyle brought his students outdoors to find some wild hickory nuts. After they had gathered up the fallen harvest from alongside the banks of a millstream, they noticed many more nuts resting on the stream bottom. “Well boys, there is only one way to get them,” Pyle said. He removed his shoes and stockings and rolled up the sleeves of his sweater. He waded into the icy water, plunging his arms down to the streambed to gather the remainder. Pyle did not allow the moment to pass without a lesson. “The poor soldiers at Valley Forge felt the cold, just as we feel the cold now,” he said. “The ragged lot that marched against the Hessians at Trenton felt the icy water and the numbing cold, and I don’t believe it’s possible to paint a picture of that sort within the four walls of your studio unless you feel the cold even as they did.”

And in Pyle’s illustration Washington and Steuben at Valley Forge (ca. 1890–1896), the cold is palpable. The two leaders trudge through the snowy camp as the soldiers give a desultory salute. The composition alternates dense clusters of figures with stark, empty expanses of snow and sky. The hard wind flutters a flag and tugs at the hem of Washington’s cloak.

One of Pyle’s greatest abilities as an artist was this quality of “mental projection,” the ability to envision unseen worlds through the lens of direct experience. In Pyle’s way of seeing, every object is a token for something unseen. A seashell, for example, derives its beauty not only from its iridescence and its curving form but also because it stirs the imagination to contemplate distant, palm-fringed shores. “It is not the mere outward part—the part the eye sees—that holds the interest,” Pyle remarked, “but what the soul feels.” This principle was woven through every aspect of his picture-making process: the preliminary sketch, the compositional design, the dramatic staging, and the use of models.

Pyle received his early artistic education not at the Pennsylvania Academy but at a private art school run by Francis Van der Wielen, who had been trained in Antwerp. Van der Wielen taught him rigorous drawing, in the academic tradition, from plaster casts and from models in long poses. Yet Pyle must have been aware that the grand European tradition of art education developed not merely to perfect copying skills but to equip painters to visualize stories from the Bible, from classical myths, and from Greek and Roman history—subjects similar to those in his own illustrations. Though he did not travel to Europe until his last years, he would have been familiar with the academic painters associated with the French Salon and the British Royal Academy. Although Pyle did not leave behind a systematic theory or method in his own writings, many of his students kept copious notes of his spoken words. Thornton Oakley recalled: “During three years with him he did not mention a word about materials, methods, mediums or techniques.” Too much emphasis on technique, Pyle warned, would result in a kind of mannered overindulgence, where the means become more important than the message.

Pyle left extensive documentation of picture-making both in his lessons and in his surviving preliminary works. When he got an idea for a picture, he made many thumbnail sketches in pen or pencil before he settled on the final design. The sketches for The Coming of Lancaster (1908) show several tentative explorations of the subject in pencil. In each of the sketches, the horse and rider emerge from what appears to be an almost random doodle, with loose lines moving in and out of the form. The positions of the heads are established as knotlike circles drawn more darkly, as if Pyle recognized that they would attract the most attention. One of his students, Charles DeFeo, recalled seeing a desk drawer filled with thousands of such sketches, as many as fifty for a single picture. “If the first sketch looks like the one I want to do,” Pyle said, “to make sure—I always make the other forty-nine anyway.”

Sometimes the process of generating thumbnail sketches acquired an almost mystical intensity. Pyle once described the feeling of an unseen hand guiding his own. His sketches give the impression of a fleeting vision snatched from the ether, a snapshot from the swirling creative vortex, or a half-remembered dream. Another student, Harvey Dunn, who himself later became an influential teacher, characterized this stage as the formation of the “pictorial concept,” with the emphasis on defining the emotional or spiritual force behind the image and expressing it very simply, often devoid of detail.

Pyle’s compositions are so arresting and original that it is tempting to analyze his images purely in abstract terms: contour, shape, thrust, asymmetry, and so on. Although his paintings are notable for their aesthetic appeal, they were not conceived with design alone in mind. To Pyle, art did not exist for its own sake but rather for the sake of the story. The expression of an emotion or an idea was paramount. Pyle’s student Jessie Willcox Smith recalled how one’s awareness of the story influenced the choices in composition:

At the [Pennsylvania] Academy we had to think about compositions as an abstract thing, whether we needed a spot here or a break over there to balance, and there was nothing to get hold of. With Mr. Pyle it was absolutely changed. There was your story, and you knew your characters, and you imagined what they were doing, and in consequence you were bound to get the right composition because you lived these things. . . . It was simply that he was always mentally projected into his subject.

On a regular basis, usually once or twice a week, each of his students submitted a large outline drawing in charcoal. It was supposed to be made without models on a theme that each person came up with independently. Pyle reviewed the submissions and chose the ones he wanted to talk about. It is the students’ notes on these critique sessions that give us an indication of Pyle’s thinking about composition.

In an illustration of the Battle of Lexington illustration, Pyle demonstrates another design strategy. He arranged the group of soldiers on the left into a dense cluster, with detail layered upon detail, while leaving large areas of the ground and the sky open. This clustering principle, which Pyle called “the elaboration of groups,” can also be seen in Extorting Tribute from the Citizens (1905). In front of the arch, a crowd of faces contrasts with the blank walls nearby. In We Started to Run Back to the Raft for Our Lives (1902), Pyle could have spaced his figures out evenly, with each silhouette separate from the others. Because he clustered them together, however, the eye sees them as one shape first and then sorts them out.

Pyle ruthlessly removed any element in a picture that was not essential to conveying the story. “They will never shoot you for what you leave out of a picture,” he once said. His reductive instinct sometimes gnawed for years on a picture until it stripped the idea to the bone. The full-color oil painting Marooned (1909), for example, was preceded by a black-and-white composition in oil (1887), which Pyle had created to illustrate his own pirate story. As the visual idea matured in his mind, he took away the gun, made both the near waves and the far sea smaller, and reduced the size of the hat, the sash, and, most importantly, the figure itself. “He teaches the necessity of elimination,” said a student. “That is, after a composition is once created the eliminations are more important than the additions.”

Pyle regarded the picture as a stage and figures as actors in a drama. He believed that the faces of the principal actors should be turned toward the audience, as in theater, because “dramatic art is nearest akin to our art.” In his pictures Pyle often kept the foreground relatively empty to focus attention on the central subject.

Every moment depicted in an illustration by Pyle is plucked from a broader timeline of dramatic events. Pyle was always conscious of what came before and what came after the moment he portrayed. He left a series of clues in Dead Men Tell No Tales (1899), which suggest the previous incidents leading to the dramatic cliff-hanger depicted.

Pyle painted some of his illustrations completely from his imagination and others with posed models. A pencil study of a draped figure, a preparatory sketch for a later painting, is an example of a study drawn from a model. Painting directly from models was a central part of his teaching. He wanted his students to study costumed models, since so few of the subjects they would interpret as illustrators would call for nudes. Pyle once compared painting a nude model to painting a plucked bird. His substantial collection of vintage and reproduction costumes aided him in his quest for historical accuracy—and they also came into service occasionally for lighthearted, mock theatrical performances.

He sometimes instructed his students to paint directly from a model posed outdoors. The students were not expected to copy exactly what they saw in such exercises. Instead, Pyle wanted them to interpret what they saw in terms of an assigned theme. Once, for example, Pyle suggested “home from the war.” He enlisted a young man to pose as a drummer boy in front of an old mill. The boy wore short red breeches and a homemade white shirt and had an authentic Revolutionary War drum over his shoulder, while a girl posed beside the door with a pitcher and a sandwich.

During Pyle’s years of maximum productivity in the late 1880s, when he painted more than two hundred illustrations per year, he could not find the time to use models or costumes for every figure, so he relied instead on his imagination. Sometimes the lack of models is evident in poses or faces that are less than fully convincing. But being able to trust one’s imagination and to work without references were skills important to him:

You should not need models. You know how a face looks—how an eye is placed and the form of it and you should be able to draw it from your knowledge. That is the very difficulty with students from other schools.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, advances in printing technology, literacy, and mail delivery transformed the way images were presented, creating new opportunities for artists and altering the system of patronage and distribution. The popular demand for realistic narrative images continued unabated, remaining fixed in the public’s center of vision, despite the emergence of Impressionism and modernism. Just as a great deal of music moved from the performance stage to the phonograph recording, the forum for storytelling pictures steadily shifted from original art in public exhibitions—such as the Salon in Paris or the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—to reproductions on the printed page. Pyle recognized that the mainstream of art was flowing into a new channel. As he put it, “The great art of the world is constructed upon a line almost identical with that of book and magazine illustration.”

That suited him well, since these were the pictures he enjoyed most. Pyle fondly recalled his first encounters with the art of books: “We—my mother and I—liked the pictures in books the best of all. I may say to you in confidence that even to this very day I still like the pictures you find in books better than wall pictures.” Pyle surely would have been pleased to know that one hundred years after his death, his artwork continues to be appreciated not just by scholars but also by artists, writers, parents, and children, and that his images reach us everywhere, whether as illustrations on the pages of books or as “wall pictures” hanging in museums.

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James Gurney is the artist and author best known for his illustrated book series Dinotopia.