Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Great Howard Pyle

Talented individuals are rare. Those who are equally talented in more than one area are even more so. One such person was Howard Pyle. Chances are that, even if you do not recognise his name, you have probably seen one of his illustrations or read one of his books as a child. In fact, it is hard to underestimate Howard Pyle's importance in the field of illustration, as he is considered by many to be the father of modern American illustration. As to his writing, well, many of Pyle's books remain in print to this day. It was not enough that Howard Pyle was an artist and a writer, he was also a poet and a teacher as well!

Howard Pyle was born in 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware. His Quaker parents had hoped that he would grow up to attend college and sent him to the Friend's School in Wilmington. Contrary to their hopes, Howard seemed more interested in reading books and drawing. Recognising where her son's strengths lay, Howard's mother encouraged him to study art and introduced him to such books as Ritson's Robin Hood ballads, Robinson Crusoe, and Arabian Nights At age 16 he would begin three years of study under Belgian artist Van der Weilen in Philadephia.

His studies ended, Pyle set about becoming a professional illustrator, setting up his own studio in Wilmington. He sold his first illustration to Scribner's Monthly in 1876, the same year that would see him move to New York City. Pyle did not see enough work from Scribner's, so he also began contributing illustrations to St. Nicholas Magazine (a popular children's magazine that ran from 1873 to 1939). By 1877 Pyle would find work with Harper's Weekly, one of the top magazines of the day. His first work for Harper's, an illustration entitled "A Wreck in the Offing," was published in a double page spread of the March 9, 1878 issue of that magazine. As an illustrator, Pyle soon found many wanting his services. He would eventually be published in many of the major American magazines of the era, including The Century Magazine, Collier's Weekly, Harper's Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, and St. Nicholas Magazine. Pyle also illustrated books, including The Story of Siegfried (1882) by James Baldwin, The The Story of the Golden Age by James Baldwin (1917), and an edition of Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shallot (1881). As might be expected, he also illustrated his own stories and books.

Today it might be hard to understand why Pyle was so great as an illustrator and so revolutionary for his time. The reason for this is simply that Pyle completely changed the art of book and magazine illustration, to the point that we still see his influence today. As cartoonist A. B. Frost pointed out in 1890, before Howard Pyle illustrations for adventure books looked as if they had been staged, with posed "actors" and "prop scenery." According to Frost, Pyle was " artist who changed the way the world looked at illustration and the way illustration looked to the world." Indeed, none of Pyle's illustrations look staged, but looked as if Pyle had caputred an actual event. His illustrations could tell stories in and of themselves. And they were often very emotive, portraying everything from utmost sorrow to utter happiness. His illustrations featured bold lines and briliant colors never seen before. While many of his contemporaries' work does not stand up today, Pyle's works look as timeless as when they were first published. No less than Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, "Do you know an American magazine called Harper's Monthly? There are things in it which strike me dumb with admiration, including sketches of a Quaker town in the olden days by Howard Pyle." If one wishes to doubt Van Gogh himself, take a look at Pyle's painting "Marooned" from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates:

Arguably, Howard Pyle was the greatest illustrator of the 19th century, and for many that would be enough, but Howard Pyle was also a writer. He contributed his first story, a fairy tale, to St. Nicholas Magazine in 1877. While Pyle would continue to write children's stories all his life, being published not only in St. Nicholas Magazine but in Harper's Young People as well, his best known works would be in the field of boy's adventure books. In 1883 his book The The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire was published. It has remained in print ever since. Pyle would follow the success of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood with other books in the same general vein. Otto of the Silver Hand (1888) followed the son of a robber baron in medieval Germany as he becomes embroiled in a blood feud. Men of Iron, a Romance of Chivalry (1892) followed a squire through knighthood. Pyle's masterpiece in the genre would be his epic retelling of the legends of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905), The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (1907), and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur (1910). His book of pirate stories, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, was published postumously in 1921. Pyle also wrote a novel length fairy tale, The Garden Behind the Moon (1895) and his children's stories were collected into anthologies during his lifetime.

It always seemed to me that Howard Pyle was born to write boy's adventure novels. His style was crisp and to the point, with very little in the way of needless words. One thing that sets them apart from many boy's adventure novels of the same era is the depth of his characters. They always had fully developed personalities and often complex motivations. His writing tended to be fairly intense at times and often quite visual. It is no surprise that many of his works have remained in print, as they seem in many ways to be timeless in both content and style.

Of course, Pyle was a teacher as well as a writer and artist. Pyle spent two years in New York before returning to Wilmington. In 1900 he founded the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington. Later Pyle would found the Brandywine School and Artists Colony in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, establishing a whole new school of painting known sometimes as "magic realism." Among his students over the years were N. C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Harvey Dunn. Over his lifetime it is estimated that Pyle taught around 110 painters.

Howard Pyle was a rare sort of man who only comes along in a great while. He was cut of the same cloth as Gene Kelly, Will Eisner, and other men who possess multiple talents. And like many such men, he revolutionised the fields in which he worked. Illustration would never be the same once Howard Pyle took it up as a profession. Similarly, his many of his boy's adventure books are still in print and would influence writers to come. Indeed, they could well be seen as a predecessor to modern day pulp fiction. While many may not recognise his name, they no doubt recognise his illustrations and many of the title of many of his books.

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