Howard Pyle (1853–1911) belongs to the golden age of illustration, a creative effloresence born of technical innovations, especially in color printing, an energetic publishing industry and an attitude—articulated in the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement and its international offshoots—that everyday objects and images were as worthy of aesthetic attention as paintings and sculpture. Pyle brought to this exhilarating mix of art and enterprise an American style of visual storytelling that is overdue for a fresh appraisal. In commemoration of the centenary of Pyle’s death, the Delaware Art Museum is presenting “Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered,” with seventy-nine paintings and drawings created between 1876 and 1910. Pyle is in the DNA of the museum, which was founded in 1912 to preserve the artist’s work.
Pyle was cognizant of European art, as well as the Japanese ukiyo-e prints that artists from van Gogh to Whistler admired. Pyle’s images show affinities with the sophisticated fantasy art of Arthur Rackham and Walter Crane, whose works are often characterized as children’s books. It should be noted that Rackham and Crane frequently tackled subjects from Greek mythology, Shakespeare and Richard Wagner, without stinting on the darker side. The imaginative lives of children were taken seriously a hundred years go, in a way we can only envy today. Pyle’s The Mermaid (1910) belongs to the fin-de-siècle sisterhood that includes Hans Christian Anderson’s doomed waif and the predatory minxes of Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse. Pyle’s mermaid comes up out of the sea, pearls and coral clinging to her raven hair, clasping the slumping body of a near-naked man. It’s unclear whether she is rescuing him from the deep or pulling him under. The color is extraordinary, dominated by the foam-marbled ultramarine sea, with a pale moon and rosy undertones in the sky. The shimmer of silvery fish scales on her hip at the waterline is particularly effective.
The mermaid has a sexual frisson not usually encountered in Pyle’s work; he gravitates more toward boy’s adventure stories. His retelling and picturing of medieval legends, as in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, had an enormous effect on popular culture. Pyle’s vision was translated, with great brio, into Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s classic film Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in storybook color, which won an Oscar for art direction. The same team—director Curtiz, hero Errol Flynn, villain Basil Rathbone, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold—had collaborated on Captain Blood (1935), a swashbuckler based on Rafael Sabatini’s best-selling novel. Another major influence on the Hollywood genre was Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, and the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum includes a good selection of his pirate images. The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow (1905) captures the swagger of a romanticized outlaw, heavily armed, with gold earrings and a red cape. That slash of red anchors the composition and emphasizes how boldly the figure is silhouetted against the muted, painterly area of blue sky, billowing clouds and a beach half in grey shadow, half in blazing light. A dark tent, filled with loot and presided over by a dozing shipmate, structures the right side of the picture.
Pyle can create a mood of excitement or calm through sophisticated formal strategies. In An Attack on a Galleon (1905), strong diagonals—a rearing ocean swell, the pirates’ sailboat—push against each other. The huge galleon, so big its sails are cropped off by the top frame of the picture, is being scaled by another boarding party. The deep blue of the ocean in the foreground contrasts with the golden tones of the galleon, which shimmers like a costly apparition. Marooned (1909) is as minimal as Attack on a Galleon is turbulent. Sky and beach have been pared down into almost abstract areas of color: the beach in modulated brown, the sky shifting from a greenish twilight, on the right, to a yellow streaked with sunset orange, on the left. The ocean is a dark hairline on the horizon, with a little eruption of white spray from the surf. The lone figure sits, slumped forward, silhouetted against the sky. The sense of desolation is existential. This is a stunning composition.
Pyle’s heart clearly belongs to the romantic past. His black-and-white work demonstrates familiarity with great engravers such as Albrecht Dürer. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, he found in the medieval world both highly charged stories and a style of sinewy pattern-making that appealed to him as a graphic artist. Pyle published a four-volume set on King Arthur and his knights, as well as the original novels Otto of the Silver Hand and Men of Iron. In his ink drawing Away They Rode with Clashing Hoofs and Ringing Armor (1888), the horses and riders come at us with a powerful sense of momentum: the animals’ hooves and legs establish one pattern across the irregular cobblestone road, while lances bristle in the arched space above. The horses are more expressive than the helmeted or grim-faced knights.
Pyle also illustrated scenes from recent history, with mixed results. Retreat Through the Jerseys (1898) and The Attack upon the Chew House (1989) show the influence of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, the French Salon painter noted for his hyper-detailed battle scenes. Like Meissonier, Pyle becomes bogged down in minutia and seems to lose his characteristic economy of design. Better are The Rush from the New York Exchange on September, 1873 (1895), a well-orchestrated panic in grisaille, and a moody, candlelit Jefferson Signing the Declaration (1898). But Pyle is at his very best in the realm of legend. He helped shape the way we visualize the past, through his books, his images featured in publications such as Harper’s Monthly and the work of students such as N.C. Wyeth and Jessie Wilcox Smith. At a time when the possibilities of narrative in visual art are again being considered, Pyle would seem to be a crucial force. “Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered” is on view November 12, 2011–March 4, 2012, at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware 19806. Telephone (302) 571-9590. On the web at www.delart.org