The Quaker gentleman of Wilmington, who carried American Illustration from the days of wood engravings into the modern era of four color reproduction, may have made his strongest influence on American art in the classroom and not on the drawing board. Howard Pyle’s reputation as an instructor was as widespread as his reputation for the heroic tales and adventures represented in his writings and illustrations. He was a hard driving instructor, as the letters of his students proclaim. It was this drive itself which lifted many wavering young artists at the turn of the century and carried their names to editors and honor rolls. His style of instruction was for the dedicated and talented only. Howard Pyle was a prolific author as well as artist, continuing his writings during his entire professional career.
The farm country surrounding Wilmington is one of the nation’s richest in Quaker tradition. The first settlers of the area brought firm beliefs and family ties to the area. Such were the roots of young Howard Pyle, oldest son of William and Margaret Pyle, born on May5, 1853. Howard was able, at age 16, to commute to Philadelphia to study under European Prof. Van der Weilen. This instruction was primarily in technique and after three years he had mastered the course. It was his own personal study which he knew was shaping his style. His interest in American history and costume and his lingering feelings on the value of the famous European masters were uppermost in his research.
He met Anne Poole at a church function and they were married in Quaker fashion. They had seven children as the family outgrew two houses in burgeoning Wilmington. Howard worked in his studio on Franklin Street from 1883 and in 1900 rebuilt the structure to accommodate his new school. The family summered at Rehobeth Beach, Delaware and Howard was a weekend commuter there. His lifestyle became routine, but his energies never diminished. He would write and draw for 12 hours a day and relax only on weekends. A list of his published works is extensive, but he never enjoyed the financial ease that the upcoming illustrators of the early 1900’s had.
The final project that Howard Pyle embarked on began in 1910, when many of his friends and the best-known artist of the day were being commissioned to do murals and large panel paintings. He was new to this and his studio would not accommodate it. His friends were returning from Europe where they had large studio space for this type of work. It was decided that the family would spend a year in Italy, with the boys, then at Yale, joining them when they could. It was his only trip abroad. He died in Florence a year later having completed only one mural.
The use of half tones and color plate reproductions were the biggest developments of the era. Howard did his first work for color reproduction in 1882 for Dodd, Mead & Co. and was very dissatisfied. As he was the foremost illustrator of the day, he was the first to be asked to try the new methods. By 1902 the process was able to reproduce colors accurately and Howard Pyle’s vivid imagination for color had its full freedom. He seldom used the pen again and his color paintings appeared in Harper’s Monthly and Scribner’s. It also gave a more realistic feeling to his adventure stories.
He spent the summers of 1898 and 1899 at Chadd’s Ford in the Brandy-wine Valley, where he had begun instructions for selected students, paid for by the Drexel Institute. It was a beautiful area rich in scenic vistas for drawing and painting. He came to realize that these classes, open and unregimented, were the only true method of instruction. They became the start of his own school in the rebuilt studio on Franklin Street in 1901. Select students from the art schools on the East coast were accepted. There was minimal scheduling and few fees. He mixed a weekly critique and instruction with studio time for each student. The students soon found that mere mention of Howard Pyle’s name would open doors that years of experience would not.
He always stressed to his students to live in the world of their subjects, to feel the emotions of their characters and to see life through their eyes. His Wilmington and his school was his own fairy-tale reality.