The illustrations of HOWARD PYLE (1853-1911) are as exciting now as they were a hundred years ago, while pictures by many of his contemporaries today look dated and mannered.
Several special qualities combined to make Pyle America's foremost illustrator. Pyle was interested in pictures, first of all, as drama. As a young man his initial reaction to a theatrical performance had made a great impression on him and influenced his point of view from then on. In his illustrations, Pyle sought to dramatize themes with universal appeal. The pictures portrayed basic human emotions: the ruthlessness of pirate greed, raw grief in the break-up of Lee's army after Appomattox, smug pride, humble petition.
Pyle's concept of a picture was never trite. He deliberately looked for new ways to tell a story and involved himself in his subject so thoroughly that his pictures make the reader and eye-witness to a vivid experience.
Having evolved his basic pictorial idea, Pyle developed his compositions; his pictures are fascinating to analyze. No area of a picture is wasted; each makes its contribution, through placement, line, tone or color, to the whole story. Through the details, the viewers eye is purposefully led toward the focal center.
Pyle wrote, as well as illustrated, many books himself. He did original research on the obscure subject of the buccaneers in the New World. It is from his famous Book of Pirates that our present-day concept of pirates has come. School children still read his Men of Iron, The Story of King Arthur and his Knights, The Merry adventures of Robin Hood, and many other tales.
As a teacher, Pyle attracted a large number of students, inspiring them as much by his idealism as by the high standards he set for picture making. Over the years he taught at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, lectured at the Art Students League in New York, and eventually conducted special classes for gifted students at both Wilmington, Deleware and, during the summer at Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania. He made no charge for his teaching and, in fact, built a set of studios for the students to work in. N. C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs, and Frank Schoonover were among the beneficiaries of this instruction, and passed along to others Pyle's unique approach as they, in turn, became illustrators and teachers.
At the time when it was customary and fashionable to study in Europe, Pyle had a strong conviction that students should seek their training and inspiration in America. Many of Pyle's greatest pictures came from his intense and loyal interest in Americana. His renditions of the Revolutionary War period and of Civil War subjects have since become standard pictures in our history books, among them Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People, and James Truslow Adams' History of the United States.
After Pyles death, his students collected many of his original paintings as a nucleus for the present comprehensive collection of his work in the Deleware Art Museum. An excellent biography entitled Howard Pyle, was written by Henry C. Pitz and published in New York by Bramhall House in 1965. - Walt Reed