Editor's note: The Brandywine River Museum provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Brandywine River Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Howard Pyle and the American Renaissance

March 17 - May 20, 2007


In the 1880s, the term "American Renaissance" was generated to describe a new spirit in the arts that began with the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and continued into the early 20th century. This broad movement sought to link the old world with the new and lift America out of provincialism. While historical accuracy was valued, artists reinterpreted the past to fit contemporary themes. Architecture, arts and crafts, and literature demonstrated an eclectic mix of European Renaissance, medieval art, and Greek and Roman influences. (right: Howard Pyle (1853-1911), A Dream of Young Summer (1901), oil on canvas, illustration for Edith M. Thomas, "A Dream of Young Summer," Harper's Monthly (June 1901), private collection.)

The American Renaissance was among a number of ideological and aesthetic trends that influenced the illustrative work of Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Believing that illustration was a springboard for painting and a means for cultivating public taste, Pyle created many classically inspired works for publication in the popular magazines of the day.

Howard Pyle and the American Renaissance, on view March 17 through May 20, 2007 at the Brandywine River Museum, provides a focused look at selected Howard Pyle works that demonstrate his use of history as dramatic, illustrative documentaries with inventive and symbolic intent.

Works on view include examples of ink illustrations for Pyle's books, The Wonder Clock (1888) and The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), noted for their rich visual detail, elegance of design, and imaginative use of pen technique. Also featured are illustrations for William Dean Howell's Stops of Various Quills (1895); The Eclogues of Virgil (1904); paintings for Quo Vadis (1897); Renaissance Couple (1902), an oil on copper; A Dream of Young Summer (1901), a painting dedicated to Augustus Saint Gaudens; and Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead? (1905), inspired by Saint Gaudens' figure of Victory for the Sherman Monument in Manhatten's Grand Army Plaza.

Selected works by Pyle's contemporaries, the important artists Edwin Austin Abbey, George Maynard, Will H. Low, Robert Frederick Blum, Francis Davis Millet, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Kenyon Cox are included because of their associations with Pyle and American illustration.

The Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum have recently jointly purchased a major painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) titled, Richard de Bury Tutoring Young Edward III, an oil on canvas completed in 1903. This important work is included in Howard Pyle and the American Renaissance.

Wall Text for the exhibition

Late-nineteenth-century American artists, writers, and architects believed their era was a second Renaissance. They viewed their country as the culmination of past cultures from which they could appropriate freely in order to develop America's distinct artistic identity. Classical styles of Greece and Rome and the arts of the Italian Renaissance were their standard, but the art of other cultures and historical periods was also assimilated into the panoply of American culture.
Architects and artists envisioned large monuments and public buildings decorated by murals and sculptures intended to personify American achievements or cultural ties to the past. Major cities had public building programs and lavish expositions. The World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was an eclectic mix of cultural associations: Viking ships and architectural recreations of Imperial Rome, Renaissance Florence, eighteenth-century Paris, and Asian palaces. The wealthy built homes in the styles of Tudor castles, Italianate palazzos, Georgian mansions, and French chateaux. Painters played leading roles as tastemakers by designing both public and private projects.
The country's nationalism and desire to depict the beautiful and noble is evident in the following comments by various artists and writers of the time:
Henry James, author:
". . .it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that more than either of them [sic] we can deal freely with forms of civilization not only our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically and culturally) claim our property wherever we find it." (Quoted from the early correspondence of Henry James published in Leon Edel, Henry James: 1843-1870: The Untried Years, Philadelphia: 1953)
John La Farge, artist:
"We are not as they are-fixed in some tradition; and we can go where we choose-to the greatest influences, if we wish, and still be free for our future." (Quoted from John La Farge, "The American Academy at Rome," Scribner's Magazine, August 1900)
Stanford White, architect:
"'In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors. . . America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art where ever [sic] she could.'" (Quoted in Lawrence G. White, Sketches and Designs by Stanford White (New York: 1920)
G. W. Prothero, author
"It cannot be doubted that much that is ugly and narrow, prejudiced and vulgar in our every day life, might be purged away by. . . a little wholesome Hellenism." from "A Greek Play at Cambridge," The Century Magazine, July 1884)
Myths and legends from antiquity have long been resources for Western art and literature because they provide universal themes and symbols. This trend was true in the late nineteenth-century. In addition, artists sought to depict myths and allegories from a realistic viewpoint, as if the events actually happened.
Classical imagery and lore were applied not only to painting, drawing, and sculpture but also to decorative arts and printed matter. Even children's books and popular magazines featured ancient stories, sometimes re-casting gods and goddesses into nineteenth-century characters and settings. One such example is "Sappho," published in Harper's December 1877 that retells the Roman story of the Greek female poet as an independent-minded modern woman.
Howard Pyle created illustrations for the mythic tales in James Baldwin's The Golden Age (1887), and Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales (1900). Baldwin and Hawthorne believed their modern interpretations were improvements on ancient tales. Likewise, Pyle's characters have individuality, and settings that reflect a locale more familiar than Greek or Italian geography.
Symbols of the Age
Many of Pyle's illustrations for poetry or enigmatic tales made use of images derived from classical antiquity or the Renaissance in Europe. These show Pyle's -- and the entire period's -- affinity for themes about life, death, love, and spirituality. Figures with wings, laurel leaf crowns, and flowing drapery, who strum Greek lyres, play pipes, or sound trumpets, personify these themes. American artists varied the degree of realistic or imaginary characteristics they applied to such imagery. Pyle seldom created works in the style of academic realism. He preferred to render forms with simplified realism or from imagination
Artists as Historians
Late nineteenth-century American society had great faith in science and the concept of progress. As a result, artists of the American Renaissance were diligent in pursuing historical accuracy in their work. Their academic interest led them to collect historical costumes and other objects and to assemble personal reference libraries. They viewed the past as a vast encyclopedia. They studied the development of their own nation and expanded their study into other, diverse civilizations and eras.
Pyle's special interest in American colonial history was a direct expression of American Renaissance ideals. He developed expertise on colonial costumes and life and became well known for historical accuracy in his work.
The Collaborative Spirit
While working to establish himself as an illustrator in New York during the late 1870s, Howard Pyle became part of a social and professional network of artists including Edwin Austin Abbey, William Merritt Chase, Frank Millet, Walter Shirlaw, Julian Alden Weir, Charles Stanley Reinhart, Carroll Beckwith, George Inness, Frederick Church, Swain Gifford, and many others. A number of these artists were both illustrators and painters. With talents as an illustrator and writer, Pyle held strong beliefs about illustration's power not only to educate the public but also to produce better painters. Nonetheless, he kept informed of aesthetic and thematic trends in fine art, selectively applying those that met his criteria for illustration.
After Pyle left New York in 1880 to establish a studio and home in Wilmington, Delaware, he maintained professional and social connections to artists and writers. His correspondence covered business matters, philosophical ideas, occasional trading of art works, or discussion of compositional ideas. In fact, the period of the American Renaissance stimulated comradeship and collaboration among artists on a large scale, unlike any other period in American art history.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Pyle corresponded between 1880 and 1905, sharing information about historic costumes and observations on art. Pyle considered Saint-Gauden's Sherman Monument (1903) in New York City's Central Park to be a masterpiece and based his painting Why Seek Ye the Living Among the Dead (1905) on the figure of Victory. Saint-Gaudens and Pyle periodically exchanged art. Pyle sent his painting A Dream of Young Summer with a dedication to the sculptor, and also gave Saint-Gaudens an ink illustration for Edwin Markham's poem "The Song of Peace." In return, Saint-Gaudens gave Pyle a plaster study of the head of Victory and a bronze medallion memorializing Robert Louis Stevenson.
Renaissance Men
Artists of the American Renaissance regarded the classical past as the supreme model for all Western art. They praised its control, perfection, nobility and eternal qualities. Europe's cultural rebirth and revival of the antique during the fourteenth to sixteenth-century set an example for Americans of how adoption of the images and methods of another age could express the current one. American artists emulated the Renaissance art of Italy in low-relief styles of sculpture and in decorative mural painting. Due to America's English heritage and literature, Americans were also drawn to the English Renaissance. Shakespeare's plays, as well as England's royalty, history, and rural character, were explored by many artists but most notably by Edwin Austin Abbey, Francis Millet, and Edwin Blashfield.
The "Renaissance man" of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe was versed in many subjects. American artists, exercising their talents in many fields, recognized that they could have a significant influence on American taste and culture. Artists not only produced paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but they also wrote articles and books, taught and lectured, created murals, etched and engraved, founded societies, and organized exhibitions. They advised city planners, industrialists, and wealthy landowners on architectural projects, and designed stained glass, ceramic tiles, book covers, furniture, interiors, and even currency.
At the height of his career, Pyle was an illustrator, author, teacher and lecturer, collector, muralist, historical consultant, and designer of theatrical costumes, bookplates, stained glass, and other objects. Pyle's expertise in illustration called on his personal interest in colonial history, medieval tales, pirates, and mystical themes that utilized classical figures and symbols.
In 1903, Pyle was commissioned by the Bibliophile Society of Boston, of which he was a member, to illustrate Thomas Frognall Dibden's The Bibliomania or Book Madness, History, Symptoms, and Cure of this Fatal Disease. Pyle created five paintings: Caxton at his Press, Roger Bacon, Erasmus Reading to Colet and More, Izaak Walton, and Richard De Bury and the Young Edward III. All except Richard de Bury. . .were reproduced in etchings by William Bicknell for the publication. Nonetheless, all of the images were issued as etchings for members of the Bibliophile society.
The American Renaissance Ends
Americans flocked to Europe for artistic training during the 1880s and 1890s. Pyle resisted this temptation, believing that American artists should not rely on contemporary European models. He mistrusted works that emphasized technique, believing that technique was a means to an end but not an end in itself. As a teacher, he believed illustration would train students to become better painters.
In Pyle's last years, he realized that illustration was increasingly controlled by commercial interests and that the American Renaissance imagery and aesthetics had begun to wane in favor of an entirely aesthetically-driven international style. He, like many of illustrators of his generation, turned to mural painting, admiring the murals' potential to both decorate and "illustrate" historical or allegorical narratives. His first commission was from the architect Cass Gilbert to paint the "Battle of Nashville" for the Minnesota State Capitol. Other commissions followed including the Essex County Court House in Newark, New Jersey, and the Hudson County Court House in Jersey City. However, Pyle felt shortcomings as a mural painter. Thus, he resolved, after many years of resistance, to go to Italy and study the old masters. Once there, he revised his negative opinions of European art and its influence. Although his untimely death in Florence denied him fruition of his plans for mural painting, his Italian experience had reinforced his determination to maintain a bridge between illustration and painting.
"For if we substitute a small flat decorated space
for a very large flat decorated space there is not
such a vast difference between the best book
illustration and a mural painting."
(Howard Pyle to W. M. R. French, April 20, 1905, as quoted in
Charles D. Abbott, Howard Pyle, A Chronicle, New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1921)
Both American and European artists of the nineteenth-century sought to recapture the spirit of ancient times. Artists who studied archeological and historical references were conscious of the educational and aesthetic effect such details brought to their art. Their care and attention is exemplified by paintings displayed here using exedras, a type of outdoor seating originating in Greek architecture.
Artists as Historians
Late-nineteenth-century American artists viewed the past as a vast encyclopedia. Realism and accuracy in rendering historical details was important and led them to collect historical costumes and other objects, and to assemble personal reference libraries. However, it was just as important not to include what were considered "vulgar details." The age preferred to create a kind of realism that presented a poetic, idealized view of life.
Although the American Renaissance was at first inspired by the Italian Renaissance, artists expanded their study into diverse civilizations and eras, including the development of their own nation. Pyle's special interest in American colonial history was a direct expression of American Renaissance ideals. He developed expertise on colonial costumes and life and became well known for historical accuracy in his work.


Go to:


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy:

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Brandywine River Museum in Resource Library.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2007 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.