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Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered

November 12, 2011 - March 4, 2012


Howard Pyle (1853 -1911) was one of America's most popular illustrators and storytellers during a period of explosive growth in the publishing industry. A celebrity in his lifetime, Pyle's widely circulated images of pirates, knights, and historical figures were featured in publications such as Harper's Monthly and were admired by artists and authors like Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Twain. Yet, despite his widespread popularity, Pyle's reputation has survived only among illustration scholars and enthusiasts. Until now his work has been virtually omitted from the larger context of art history. (right: Howard Pyle (1853-1911), An Attack on a Galleon, 1905, Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1912.)

In celebration of the centenary of Pyle's death, the Delaware Art Museum is presenting Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered, a major retrospective exhibition featuring 79 paintings and drawings created by Pyle between 1876 and 1910, on view November 12, 2011 through March 4, 2012. This exhibition presents a fresh perspective on Pyle's familiar images, exploring his interaction with the art and culture of his time and effectively repositioning him within the broader spectrum of 19th-century art.

This retrospective exhibition also marks the 100th anniversary of the Delaware Art Museum, which was founded in 1912 to preserve and exhibit Pyle's work following his untimely death in November 1911. The Museum's Centennial Celebration begins in November 2011 with the opening of Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered and ends in June 2013 with the exhibition Indelible Impressions: Contemporary Illustrators and Howard Pyle.


About Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered

Pyle's unique approach to the art of illustration was honed through the intensive, self-directed study of the art of his time, which he experienced both in the original as well as through illustrated periodicals and books, reproductive prints, and fine art reproductions. The exhibition will include Pyle's paintings alongside related works by contemporary American and European artists to show these fine art cross-currents. Three key themes represented in Pyle's work will be highlighted in this exhibition:


Visions of the Past concentrates on Pyle's depictions of history, including Roman gladiators and Medieval knights. His views of the classical world drew inspiration from the work of the French academic artist Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824 - 1904) and his numerous depictions of the Middle Ages show how conversant Pyle was with the works of the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelites.

Pyle's pirate imagery is based on his own personal archive of costume books and historic manuscripts; however, his use of strong diagonals, flat compositional arrangements, and restrained placement of color suggests an understanding of the art world's new-found interest in Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The contemporary art world was obsessed with Japanese art as reflected in the work of James McNeill Whistler, James Tissot, and Edgar Degas, among others.


Fairytale and Fantasy will focus on Pyle's fairy tales and children's illustrations, which show his knowledge of European illustrators, including Walter Crane (1845 - 1915) and Kate Greenaway (1846 - 1901). His depictions of the world of make-believe also reflect many of the themes and methods of European Aesthetic and Symbolist art.


America - Past and Present highlights Pyle's enthusiasm for the American Colonial Revival of the 1880s, which celebrated the history of the United States. Many of Pyle's iconic Revolutionary War scenes seem to have been strengthened by knowledge of the work of the French Salon artist, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1814 - 1891), whose military scenes of the Napoleonic Wars were immensely popular.



Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered was organized by the Delaware Art Museum.


Additional images


Wall text panels from the exhibition

Visions of the Past

Pyle's body of work includes images of European history from the classical period through the 18th-century. His depictions of the ancient world echoed an interest in classical subject matter prominent in academic painting in Europe. He was particularly fond of the Middle Ages and he wrote and illustrated several works set in medieval Europe and England. Among these are Otto of the Silver Hand (1888), The Story of King Arthur and his Knights (1903) and The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905). The wood-engraved illustrations for these works clearly reference Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of the 1860s to which Pyle would have had ample exposure, both through prints and illustrations, as well as first-hand in the Wilmington collection of his contemporary, Samuel Bancroft. Pyle's pirate imagery, perhaps his best known work, is a unique combination of historical accuracy and his own personal vision. His interest in authenticity is demonstrated by his archive of costume books and historic manuscripts. Recent research has revealed, however, that there was very little visual information regarding exactly what pirates wore. Pyle filled in the blanks with his vibrant imagination to create images that still shape our view of pirate clothing today.


America Past & Present

Perhaps Pyle's strongest and most enduring images are those depicting the past and present of the United States. The American Colonial Revival was in full swing in the 1880s, and Pyle certainly joined in the enthusiasm for celebrating the nation's history. He read voraciously, visited the sites of important events in colonial history, and collected antique costumes and furnishings. For his American history subjects, he tapped into a broad spectrum of styles and formats in both illustration and fine art, American and European, always tailoring style to format. For instance, Yankee Doodle: An Old Friend in a New Dress (1881), a children's picture book, is illustrated in a charming, caricature-like manner that reflects the influence of the English artist, Walter Crane. Pyle's Revolutionary War imagery, however, seems to have been inspired by the Napoleonic war imagery of the French Academic artist Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. And when illustrating contemporary life in America, Pyle, not surprisingly, seems to have looked to his compatriots for inspiration, including Winslow Homer, an artist whose work he greatly admired.


Fairy Tales & Fantasy

Pyle's fairy tales and children's illustrations were informed by-and also influenced-the leading European illustrators of the day, including Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane and Arthur Rackham. Crane wrote, "I was interested to meet Mr. Howard Pyle, the distinguished artist, whose work I had so often admired in the American magazines." Pyle's Arthurian texts were clearly targeted towards children and were undoubtedly inspired by the wood engravings of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. His imagery for adult stories has a sophisticated air that suggests European aesthetic and symbolist sources. For instance, he was clearly aware of the new interest in Japanese woodblock prints expressed in the work of artists such as Edgar Degas, James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler, and this is seen in the illustrations for his own story, North Folk Legends of the Sea (1902). And his illustrations for Erik Bøgh's The Pilgrimage of Truth (1900), display a menacing linearity that bears close resemblance to the controversial illustrations for Oscar Wilde's retelling of Salome by the symbolist artist, Aubrey Beardsley.


The Murals

As early as 1900 Howard Pyle began thinking beyond the confines of illustration. The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured a significant number of murals, sparking a nationwide interest in public art. Pyle's first commission, for the Minnesota Capital Building in St. Paul, was completed in 1906. During the same period-perhaps as a model for future commissions, or to develop his technique-Pyle painted a series of seven panels for the drawing room of his Wilmington home at 907 Delaware Avenue. The subject, celebrating the muses of art and literature, is variously titled the "Genus," "Genius" or "Birth" of Art/Literature, somewhat clouding the interpretation of the artist's intended meaning. Nonetheless, the choice of academic subject and Beaux-Arts execution suggests a move beyond the confines of his life-defining career in American illustration. Several additional mural commissions followed, prompting Pyle's decision to travel to Italy to study European art. In 1923 the panels were removed from the walls of Pyle's home and re-hung in a specially built room in the Wilmington Public Library. They are now part of the permanent collection of the Delaware Art Museum.


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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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