From the 1870s to the 1910s, the work of American illustrator and author Howard Pyle (1853–1911) was viewed by thousands of readers daily as his illustrations filled the most popular magazines. During his 35-year career, Pyle published more than 2,200 illustrations and 30 books. He wrote fables, fairy tales, and adventure stories, providing the artwork to accompany his texts. Pyle was especially known for his illustrated adaptations of Robin Hood and King Arthur and for teaching the next generation of illustrators how to move the craft forward.
During the late 19th century, before photography came into widespread use, magazine editors relied on illustrations to enrich stories and articles. Howard Pyle was a master illustrator, contributing pictures and cover designs to Harper's, Ladies' Home Journal, McClure's Magazine, Collier's Weekly, and the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas. Historical accuracy mattered to Pyle and before beginning work, he thoroughly researched his subjects. For example, when Pyle was asked to create an illustration depicting the Revolutionary War's Battle of Bunker Hill, he contacted the British Admiralty office, requesting details regarding the uniforms British soldiers then wore and the weather conditions on that day in June 1775.
Pyle was born on March 5, 1853, in Wilmington, Delaware, to William Pyle and Margaret Churchman Painter Pyle. His ancestors had come to the New World from England and settled in the Wilmington region decades before his birth. His family was Quaker, and when he was a young child, they lived on the outskirts of town in a farmhouse surrounded by winding paths, flower beds, shrubs, and fruit trees. Pyle especially liked the garden.
According to Henry C. Pitz, author of Howard Pyle: Writer, Illustrator, Founder of the Brandywine School, Pyle's artistic nature expressed itself quite early. As a young boy, he felt inspired to write a poem and sought out the garden. “My mother gave me some gilt-edged paper and a lead pencil, and I went out to this rock where I might be alone with my inspiration and purpose. It was not until I had wet my pencil point in my mouth and was ready to begin my composition that I realized that I was not able to read or write. I shall never forget how helpless and impotent I felt.”
Because Pyle's parents wanted him to attend college, his mother often read to him aloud, choosing works by Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Shakespeare, and the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers. When he was little, Pyle liked to lay on the floor in front of the fire and flip through books, studying the pictures inside. He attended a local school run by the Quakers and his parents encouraged his efforts here. Pyle, however, was a daydreamer: he filled his notebooks with drawings and was not that interested in applying himself to his studies.
By his teens, Pyle wanted to be an artist, and in 1869, at age 16, he commuted to Philadelphia regularly to study with a Belgian artist named F.A. Van der Wielen. Under Van der Wielen's tutelage, Pyle received instruction in human anatomy and technique and learned to make charcoal renderings, copy objects for still lifes, and sketch posed models. After three years, Pyle ended this course of instruction, realizing that he had learned all he could because Van der Wielen taught technique but not creation. While Pyle had become proficient in observing and then depicting what he saw with charcoal or brush, he realized that creating art involved more than simply copying concrete objects onto paper.
After ending his art studies in 1871, Pyle worked in his father's leather shop and continued to sketch and write. He wrote a poem about an uptight parson who was given a magical pill with transformational powers and in 1876, he sent his “magic pill” story to Scribner's Monthly, where the editors accepted it for publication. That same year, Pyle traveled to the Virginia coast island of Chincoteague to draw a wild pony roundup. He sent these drawings, along with an accompanying story, to Scribner's Monthly and they, too, were published.
Feeling confident of success, Pyle moved to New York City in October of 1876. He rented a room on 48th Street and spent his time drawing and writing, but he struggled to make his way. At this time, the process for printing artwork in a magazine involved a wood engraver, who took an artist's original pen-and-ink drawing and “interpreted” it, making a wood block of the image that could be pressed onto paper. Pyle's work was difficult to transfer onto wood blocks and it was usually redrawn by a professional artist at the publication. While Pyle's “ideas” were going to press, his original artwork was not.
In 1877, Pyle published a few small tales in Harper's Weekly and St. Nicholas. Pyle wrote the stories and then sent them to his mother for editing. After receiving her corrected copy, he created illustrations and submitted the work, which was then redrawn by a professional artist before going to the wood engraver. To improve his craft, Pyle took art classes at the Art Students League in New York City. Finally, in 1878, he published his first, doublepage, wholly original and unrevised illustration in Harper's Weekly.
In 1879, Pyle moved back to Wilmington. By now, he had established himself in the New York City publishing circles and received regular commissions from magazine publishers. In Wilmington, he met Anne Poole, whom he married on April 12, 1881. In 1882, their son Sellers was born, and four more sons and two daughters followed. In 1889, when Pyle was away on a trip with Anne, Sellers died. Pyle channeled his grief into the book The Garden behind the Moon (1895), which explores human existence through the eyes of a young boy who, with the help of an angel, learns about the other side of the moon.
In the early 1880s, Pyle stayed busy with commissions but also found time to work on a manuscript illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings depicting the heroic English outlaw Robin Hood. The project came to fruition in 1883 with the publication of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. In writing this book, Pyle adapted the traditional ballads of the past, making them appropriate and accessible to children. He softened the stories and developed minor characters. For instance, in the original ballads, Robin Hood killed 14 foresters because they did not honor a bet and afterward showed little remorse. In Pyle's version, bloodshed occurred when Robin Hood had to defend himself against a gang of robbers. In the end, only one man died and this would-be robber shot at Robin Hood first. Pyle's version marked the first time all of the Robin Hood ballads were fused into one cohesive narrative.
In the years that followed, Pyle wrote and illustrated other books set in medieval Europe, including Otto of the Silver Hand (1888), which showed the cruelty of the Dark Ages; a book about knights called Men of Iron (1891); and the four-part King Arthur series: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), The Story of the Champions of the Round Table (1905), The Story of Sir Launcelot and His Companions (1907), and The story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur (1909). He turned to illustrated fairy tales in Twilight Land (1895) and The Wonder Clock (1888), the latter which included a fairy tale for each hour of the day. Pirates were his focus in the aptly titled 1921 compilation Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates.
In the 1890s, Pyle started teaching because he was frustrated that most art schools taught illustrators technical skills without inspiring their creativity. In October of 1894, he began hosting a once-a-week illustration class at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Art, Science & Industry. Within a few years, he was teaching several courses due to his popularity as an instructor. Pyle's early students at Drexel included Maxfield Parrish, Frank Schoonover, Jessie Willcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green, all of whom went on to become acclaimed illustrators.
Pyle resigned from Drexel in 1900 because he wanted to work with a more select group of students. When he started his own “school” in Wilmington, he only accepted students who were technically proficient artists and preferred them to be between 18 and 21 years old because at this age he viewed minds as most pliable. Pyle taught for free, and while his students covered the cost of their art supplies, fees for models, and studio rent, overall it was a low-cost program. The training was rigid and serious, however, as Pyle led his students in drawing, sketching, and analyzing details.
Pyle drilled into his students the need to capture the “spirit” of their subject. According to Lykes, student Thornton Oakley described Pyle's instruction as “consist[ing] … entirely of endeavoring to instill in his students a love of the beauty of nature and of life although he never used the words ‘nobility’ or ‘beauty.’ He spoke only of the underlying spirituality of the subject. We were told to throw ourselves into the subject that we have chosen heart and soul.” Channeling the artist's aesthetic, N.C. Wyeth attended Pyle's class in 1902 and went on to win fame for his illustrations for Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
For a handful of years, Pyle also taught an intensive summer-school course for select students at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The sessions were held in an old gristmill studio situated on Brandywine Creek, which is why Pyle's illustration methodology is sometimes called the Brandywine School. Here students sketched in the studio and sometimes took walks into the countryside with Pyle. During their excursions, he instructed them to be observant and take in the details around them for later use. He insisted that, before a student could draw an illustration of a person walking in a field of grass, he or she needed to walk in such a field and understand what the experience felt like.
Pyle was well known for a series of Revolutionary War images that appeared in a 12-part Scribner's magazine series commemorating the American war of independence. During one summer, he and his class waded into a woodland stream so cold that it almost froze their feet. Pyle used it as a learning experience, reminding them that the Continental soldiers at Valley Forge must have felt a similar sensation and that this kind of detail is what they should strive to capture in their work
In 1905, Pyle reduced the number of students he taught in Wilmington because he wanted to focus on mural painting. The following year, he completed “Battle of Nashville,” an installation at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. He also painted murals in two New Jersey courthouses.
Throughout his life, Pyle had been resistant to training in Europe because he wanted to develop a truly American style of art. Finally, in 1910, he decided to go overseas to study. While there, he became ill with a kidney infection and died on November 9, 1911, in Florence, Italy. He was 58.
In summing up Pyle's influence and legacy, Pitz wrote in his biography that “the person and his work evade a neat summary. His career was a demonstration of the miraculous unexpectedness of high talent.” Others have summed up Pyle's career by ranking him in the top tier of America's Golden Age illustrators.
Elzea, Rowland, Howard Pyle, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.
Pitz, Henry C., Howard Pyle: Writer, Illustrator, Founder of the Brandywine School, Clarkson N. Potter, 1975.
Military History, March 2011, “A Brush with War.”
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, July 1956, “Howard Pyle, Teacher of Illustration,” pp. 339–370.
Philadelphia Times, December 8, 1883, “The Cid and Robin Hood Presented to Young American Readers,” p. 3.
USA Today Magazine, September 2012, Joyce K. Schiller, “Where There Is a Story to Tell,” pp. 38–45.□