The news arrived like a thunderbolt. Howard Pyle was dead.
America’s foremost illustrator had travelled with his family to Florence, Italy, and died unexpectedly of kidney disease on November 9, 1911. At the age of 58, he left behind a legion of distraught students, friends, and admirers.
“I am conscious of a sinking feeling inside whenever I chance to think of it,” acknowledged the master’s prize pupil, N.C. Wyeth.
On a frigid evening in the early winter of 1912, a small group of Pyle’s students and friends gathered to celebrate the artist’s life. Searching for a way to honor his artistic legacy and unparalleled gift for teaching, they laid the foundation for The Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, with Louisa du Pont Copeland named its first president.
One of the Society’s first acts was to purchase 47 paintings and 30 ink drawings from Mrs. Pyle to be used as a continuing memorial to the artist. The treasured works formed the cornerstone of the Delaware Art Museum’s collection; they remain a vital component of the museum a century later.
Throughout the early 1930s the facility’s leaders focused on bringing the institution to maturity. A major step forward was the unprecedented and generous offer from the family of the late Samuel Bancroft, Jr., gifting his art and manuscript collection. A Wilmington textile mill owner, Bancroft had assembled the largest and most significant Pre-Raphaelite collection outside of the United Kingdom. In addition, the family donated 11 acres of rolling countryside near Kentmere Parkway to construct a facility to showcase Bancroft’s collection.
During the darkest days of the Depression members of the Society and everyday Delaware residents dug deep, raising an impressive $350,000 for construction and an endowment. In 1938 the Delaware Art Center opened its doors to the public.
Works of the Pre-Raphaelites and those of Pyle and his acclaimed students hung in their own galleries; a growing collection beyond American illustration was being formed as well. The museum was home to a lively, active educational art center, and a generous Society member made possible bus visits for 2,500 schoolchildren.
Through the next two decades the scope of the works of art grew along with the changing shape and design of the building. Nineteenth- and 20th-century American artists were represented with major works by Frederick Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth. The Wyeth exhibit in January 1957 shattered attendance records; 14,451 turned out for its four-week run.
Beginning in 1961, Helen Farr Sloan forged a remarkable relationship with the museum. Her late husband John Sloan, one of America’s premier artists, was widely acclaimed for his realistic images of turn-of-the-century New York City. Through Mrs. Sloan’s gifts and scholarships the museum acquired more than 3,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and manuscripts—the preeminent collection of Sloan’s art, representing every aspect of his career. Today, the museum’s Helen Farr Sloan Library contains 38,000 art reference volumes and houses extensive archival material related to the collection.
The generous donation of one of Pyle’s gifted and impassioned students, Mrs. Gayle Hoskins, aided the purchase and conservation of the works of Pyle and his trainees in 1978.
Through the 1980s the Museum’s collections grew rapidly and attendance soared following a $6.5 million expansion and renovation project in 1987.
The year 2005 saw the grand reopening of the museum with $30 million spent in expanded galleries and programs, and the Brandywine Valley’s first sculpture park.
The DAM’s collection currently numbers over 12,000 works that attract 70,000 visitors each year. With substantial acquisitions, the museum has taken its place among prominent collections of American art, complementing those of nearby Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Museum Director Danielle Rice says the museum has come full circle from the time of Pyle’s death.
“Pyle was immensely popular at the time of his death, with his images accessible to a very broad public,” Rice says. “Today, we still strive to be the people’s museum, reaching out to a broad array of groups and organizations throughout the state through our collections, exhibitions, and programs. It really is true community involvement.”
In 1900 the studios just off north Franklin Street resembled low thatched cottages quickly gathering an additional covering of vines and climbing roses. The interior was the “color of telegraph poles,” brightened by skylights delivering the prized northern light desired by artists. The structures were adorned with great knockers on the double Dutch doors, bulls-eye windows, and wrought-iron hinges.
Fireplaces provided heat in those early days, the air fragrant with the pungent smell of burning hickory. It was where Howard Pyle painted, wrote, and taught his pupils. At the peak of his creative powers the Wilmington native was one of America’s most popular illustrators and storytellers. His images and tales reached millions of people, helping to shape the American imagination.
In celebration of the centenary of the death of Pyle (1853-1911), the Delaware Art Museum presents, through March 4, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition. Four years in the making, Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered comprises 79 works of art. Its fresh perspective explores his interaction with the art and culture of his time, effectively repositioning him within the broader spectrum of 19th-century art.
Pyle was born in an age when the possibilities for training as an illustrator were limited, yet demand for illustrations was sky high. He honed his approach through intensive study of British art, Pre-Raphaelites and academics, French art at the salons, and symbolist art on the continent.
“Reproductions of fine art were being made on a very high level and it changed art history,” says Margaretta Frederick, the Delaware Art Museum’s chief curator.
“So much so, Van Gogh is looking at Pyle through Harper’s, a printed magazine. Making those connections was astounding. You can’t underestimate the explosion in the printing industry and what that did to the visual arts. It’s just like the Internet for us today.”
Tall and thick, Pyle was balding with a heavy square jaw. When the Franklin Street studio was launched he was at the peak of his powers in his twin professions as author and illustrator. Pyle’s output was prodigious. From his earliest sketches in Scribner’s Monthly in 1876 until his death in Florence in 1911, Pyle wrote 34 books, many considered minor classics, illustrating many delightful stories for young people. He also illustrated more than 160 volumes by other authors and created 2,200 drawings and paintings reproduced in periodicals.
But those years of endless work took a heavy toll, and he died within a year of his arrival in Florence. Still, Pyle’s untimely death did not mark the end of his influence. Beyond his own masterly work his genius inspired scores of young illustrators across the country.
He was a master teacher. Students flocked to his classes from all over the country. Many of the greatest illustrators of the day were his pupils: N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley, and Maxfield Parrish. Pyle’s creed: one’s own conception of life must be the inspiration of all work.
“Somehow after a talk with him you felt inspired to great things,” Parrish said.
Pyle illustrated the works of Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. A tireless worker, Pyle found time between painting, illustrating, teaching, and lecturing to write his own stories. In these books Pyle produced enduring versions of Robin Hood and the Arthurian legends and shaped the American vision of pirate life.
Pyle’s depictions of the ancient world may well have been inspired by the work of the French academic artist Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), says Frederick.
“Those works would have been available to him through public collections in Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as in widely disseminated photomechanical reproductions,” Rice says.
Pyle’s legendary pirate imagery is rooted in his own personal archive of costume books and historic manuscripts. But their strong diagonals, planar compositional arrangements, and effectively restrained placement of color suggest an understanding of the art world’s new-found preoccupation with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, among other sources.
When the American Colonial Revival was in full swing in the 1880s, Pyle joined in the enthusiasm of celebrating the history of the United States. Much of Pyle’s Revolutionary War imagery seems to have been strengthened through knowledge of the work of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1841-1891), whose scenes of Napoleonic wars were immensely popular. Comparisons can be drawn between Campaign of France, (1864) and Pyle’s Retreat through the Jerseys (1898).
Over the years one personal ambition burned bright—his desire to re-categorize illustration as a recognized branch of the fine arts. He championed illustration as the rarest and most difficult of all the arts. In an essay published in 1902, Pyle concluded, “The only distinctive American Art is to be found in the Art of Illustration.”
As his career progressed, Pyle chose not to join his colleagues in transitioning to the realm of fine arts.
“He studied and observed both old masters and contemporary art, mining it for compositional, stylistic, and philosophical elements that might best suit his work at hand,” Frederick says.
“With this information Pyle produced thoroughly original, entirely American works of art. This is perhaps the key to their lasting popularity.”
In a 1902 lecture to the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, Pyle put it this way: “The great pictures stimulate a true artist to renewed effort but they do not inspire that effort.”
The Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered Exhibit runs from November 12, 2011 to March 4, 2012. For more information, please visit the Delaware Art Museum.