Saturday, January 14, 2012


All images courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

Howard Pyle, the father of modern illustration and one of America's most important painters, died just over a century ago.  To commemorate the anniversary of his death, the Delaware Art Museum mounted a splendid centennial exhibition reminding us of Pyle's contribution.  (You can find information on the show here and here.)

Eight years before he died, Pyle asked his art students to sketch their own concept of "The End."  The Delaware show includes a selection of those drawings:
In 1903, Howard Pyle and his students gathered for weekly drawing sessions, in which Pyle assigned a subject for everyone to sketch. On the evening of March 25, 1903... sixteen members of the class created sketches of "The End."
Sitting around that room was a charmed circle of young talent.  Pyle had received nearly 100 applications for every opening in his school that year.  Students such as N.C. WyethFrank Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs, William Aylward, and Harry Everett Townsend were at the beginning of what would turn out to be brilliant careers.  But on that day in 1903 they had no idea of what lay in store for them, or what  their own "End" might be.

Death would catch up with Pyle unexpectedly during a trip to Italy with his family.  Who would have guessed that this most American of artists was destined to be buried in a foreign land?

It is hardly surprising that the future nautical painter W.J. Aylward chose a sinking ship for his theme.

Fifteen years later, Aylward would find himself on a ship steaming toward World War I as an artist for the Armed Expeditionary Forces (along with his fellow student Townsend).  Passing through the enemy submarine zones with their constant alarms, Aylward had plenty of time to meditate on his choice of an end.

N.C. Wyeth's idea was to draw a man who succumbed to the cold:

Wyeth had a fertile imagination but even he could never have predicted that 42 years later, after a long and fruitful career, he would meet his own fate in a car stalled on the railroad tracks, with his helpless  grandchild trapped by his side.

Another student in that room, Frank Schoonover, outlasted all his comrades.  He met his end peacefully in the 1970s at the age of 95.  He lived long enough to see the empire of modern illustration that arose from such humble origins, and to lecture to the public about those early days at the Pyle school. 

Henry Jarvis Peck envisioned a prisoner's end:

Allen Tupper True, with his preference for western art, envisioned a cowboy hanging from a tree:

Samuel Palmer took a more whimsical approach, apparently viewing the End as the end of a circus performance:

Pyle's huge influence was due in part to the fact that his imagination and talent were perfectly suited for his moment in history.  Pyle worked in an era of change, when technology transformed the quality of mass reproduced pictures, and economics transformed the methods of delivering those pictures to the public.  His career began when a small handful of black and white journals such as Century and Scribners contained primitive wood engravings, and ended as dozens and dozens of color magazines were beginning to blossom with innovative illustrations and graphic design. 

Just as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 led to the democratization of knowledge, these changes in the 19th century led to the democratization of art.

Pyle had the vision to hitch his great talent to the technological and economic changes of his day, but the Delaware museum show makes clear that the crucial ingredient for his success remained heart, rather than technology or economics.  In his excellent chapter in the Catalog accompanying the Delaware show, painter James Gurney quotes Pyle's students:
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.
Instead, Gurney writes, for Pyle "the expression of an emotion or an idea was paramount."  Rather than instructing his students on the technical applications of the new photoengraving processes, he assigned them themes such as "Coming Home From the War" or "The End."  He told his students, "Project your mind into your subject until you actually live in it." He wanted them to be able to "smell the smoke" when painting a battle scene. "Throw your heart into the picture," he said, "and then jump in after it."

Then as now, improved delivery systems were not enough to change the world.  Pyle could never have been a major catalyst for the Cambrian explosion of modern illustration if his pictures had a less persuasive heart.


MORAN said...

David, thanks for the reminder of how important Pyle was. Beautiful.

Dave Kapah said...

yeah it is beautiful.
reading this felt a bit sad...
great post!

RC Reese said...

Awesome post... I read the autobiography of NC Wyeth a few years ago and found it unbelieveable how many great artists were "touched" by Pyle's teaching! thanks for sharing..

feel free to stop by sometime...

Vi said...

Thank you for your post! It was a nice reminder of the great artist

David Apatoff said...

MORAN and Vi-- I agree, we forget how truly important Pyle was. If you take a walk through the Delaware show, that point comes across loud and clear.

By the way, I neglected to thank the very helpful Molly Keresztury at the Museum who provided me with jpgs of these drawings and the list of students who participated in the March 25, 1903 sketch session.

Dave Kapah-- No question about it, the story has a lot of sadness to it. A lot of glory too. N.C. Wyeth had a tragic end, but he created astonishing works of beauty in the time that he had.

RC Reese-- there are a couple of different treatments of Wyeth's life, in addition to his collection of letters, that give alternative perspectives on this lion of a man. He is my favorite of Pyle's students, although Harvey Dunn was also terrific. Even Maxfield Parrish spent a little time with Pyle.

Anonymous said...

I've been browsing Broder's Dean Cornwell: Dean of Illustrators and it strikes me how relatively minimalist Pyle's work appears now by contrast.

Anonymous said...

I also belong to a weekly sketch group. If we turn out to be great one day too, I hope you'll write about us.


John Philip said...

I love the line work on the Pyle drawing.

Toby said...

Pyle's effort is very good but I think the quality of the others is lower than I'd have expected.

अर्जुन said...

Something seems vaguely familiar.

Donald Pittenger said...

So why did Pyle ask the group to illustrate such a downbeat topic?

One answer might be that it is emotionally loaded, and therefore could inspire his students to put even more emotion into it than they might have for other subjects.

Or perhaps it reflected something that was deeply ingrained in Pyle's mind. The catalog to the exhibit contains a chapter dealing with Pyle's affinity with Swedenborgian thought. I don't have the book with me, so can't specifics regarding his beliefs. But I recall that the chapter includes some of his illustrations dealing with spiritual themes.

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- I know what you mean. I'd note, however, that for a few key details at the visual center of his paintings, he could be very detailed and meticulous. It was more in the larger planes of his pictures that he could be minimal and restrained. I agree that in his best work he was more restrained and selective than Cornwell.

JSL-- You can never tell how these early efforts will turn out. I'm sure Pyle's young students didn't guess, as they joked and chatted, that we'd be writing about them 109 years later.

John Philip and Toby-- I think many of these artists were excellent draftsman (Pyle especially) but I agree with Toby that these are not their best efforts. They are offered here more for content than for form.

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- Yes, I would certainly agree there is a more than coincidental similarity there.

Donald Pittenger-- I'd say "emotionally loaded" more than "downbeat." Some of his students clearly had downbeat emotional responses, and I can't blame them, but Palmer seemed to view the assignment through the eyes of Shakespeare's Puck.

Hedvah said...

Wonderful quote by Gurney. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

David, I have heard that you are a lawyer working in the technology field. Many bloggers are participating in the SOPA and PIPA protest to prevent control of the internet. Is there a reason you have not?

chris bennett said...

Very nice post David.

Apart from N. C. Wyeth's contibution to Pyle's assignment being the best, it was curiously prescient of his demise - a kind of railroad shape with an element falling out of it.

I'm gonna draw my own'END'... A picture of myself fast asleep with a smile on my face - that should do it!

regina bulayevskaya said...

I admire very much Howard Pyle's emphases on the message in art as apposed to technique.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (my favorite Russian poet, who was also an artist) stormed out from one of the art schools saying that they were teaching craft, not art.
This is one of my favorite examples of how personal and sincere the artist should be: in a distant African village some art hunter spotted an interesting wooden figure. To his surprise the old women, who made the carving, refused to sell it. She could not understand the concept, why to give away something that she put into her heart and time. How can you part with something so dear and meaningful to you?

David Apatoff said...

Hedvah-- Yes, the entire Gurney chapter of the catalog is worth reading. It was good to get a practicing artist's perspective on Pyle.

Anonymous-- Since you asked: as a lawyer I have had first hand dealings with the way Google collects and manipulates data to exploit the goodwill, value and trademarks that other companies have built up with great ingenuity (and at great expense) over many years. As a result, I am less willing to view Google as the protector of internet freedom for the little people.

Google's AdWords program, which has accounted for over 90% of their profits, strikes me as less innovative technological wizardry and more of an old fashioned protection racket.

I am not wild about the intellectual property stances of MPAA and RIAA, but their antiquated and restrictive business plans are probably less of a threat to the freedom of the average internet user (including you)than Google's compartmentalization and manipulation of information for the benefit of their shareholders and managers. So my view on the blackout was, "a plague on both your houses."

AnnaMaria Windisch-Hunt said...

So glad you posted this. My husband and I both artists found an old book and read it together over months. We referred to it as "Dear Mama" How insightful it was as is your post.

Marilyn Richardson said...

Wonderful post - - informative, surprising, poignant.

angiluna3003 said...

recall that the chapter includes some of his illustrations dealing with spiritual themes and thanks for sharing!