Howard Pyle's "So the Treasure Was Divided" 19x29" oils on canvas
The Delaware Art Museum has the largest collection of original Pyle artwork anywhere, Pyle having lived, taught and worked in Wilmington, where the museum resides. It was already on my list of museums to visit, for its Pyle collection, before this show. Learning that such a retrospective was going up, however, popped this up the list of things-to-do immediately. The show runs through March 4, 2012, so you have a couple of months left to get out there. And if it's in any way reasonable to do so, and you love this stuff, do so.
Pyle was known as a remarkable historical-fantasy painter, illustrating stories and writing and illustrating others. The above shows a bit of that: multi-figured, costumed narrative. Pyle is one illustrator that definitely benefits from seeing the originals: his work is incredibly subtly colored, tending towards mid-to-low color saturation, with an astounding sensitivity to grayscale value. I often go on about the importance of value, even over color. Pyle was one of those who mastered both.
His work is mainly tied to two main genres: pirates and colonial history painting. The more you look, the more you realize that movies like Pirates of the Caribbean drew heavy inspiration from Pyle's work. His pirate work has therefore remained popular, even as pirates themselves are a perennial subject of fascination in the culture. But his Revolutionary War era work is wonderful in equal measures.
Pyle's "The Fight on Lexington Common" (detail)
Is that John Kerry at left?
Pyle had a wonderful ability to be both loose and tight at the same time, thick and yet detailed. The scumbling of smoke at right reveals a heavy impasto from either the priming or from under layers.
Interestingly, these two pieces shown so far aren't even from the retrospective show! They are part of the museum's collection and currently hung in a separate show which runs all of 2012. Visiting now gives you a double helping of Pyle!
The show itself features a number of Pyle's masterpieces, ones you will have seen posted everywhere else. And if you don't know Pyle's work well, then these should simply be considered appetizers for that stuff. What struck me most was the size variation of his work, from these roughly 24x36 -range pieces, which are typical sizes for illustrations even today, to ~40x60" for some of his more popular pieces, which benefited more from space than detail, since those largest pieces are often much simpler than the above. There are also a number of smaller paintings, even down to maybe 10x10" or so.
Back in the day, it was common to find black-and-white reproductions in publications. Often, these were simply painted in black-and-white, and the show highlights a few of these. I haven't worked much in that format, but every time I see it it looks like fun.
The great thing about good monochrome art is that you can imagine the color palette as almost anything, and it still works. The painting below, for instance, could just as easily be a moody deep night scene, lit by moonlight, or an early morning light, bright yellows and purple in the shadows. Or evening, with oranges and blues. Or whatever, it doesn't matter.
Perhaps equal to his reputation as an illustrator, possibly even greater--certainly of even greater lasting influence--was the private school he ran, bringing in students, teaching them, sending them out. The lineage here is astounding. Artists such as Frank Schoonover and Maxfield Parrish studied with Pyle. Other entire branches of lineage were launched through training N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew, who became one of America's most celebrated fine artists. Student Harvey Dunn went on to train other celbrated illustrators as well, including Dean Cornwell, both of whom ended up training Mead Schaeffer. The cascading effects of Pyle's influence on contemporary illustration are astounding, and this is without naming the many talented illustrators who worked in their day after training with Pyle or his students, but whose names have not become so well-known.
That influence has not ended, to this day. Whether directly influenced by Pyle, or by one of his artistic progeny, today's illustrators working within this genre are direct inheritors of this genius. No one denies it, and all celebrate it. The amount to which I or another directly embody the influence varies, but it's inescapable. You cannot see a painting like the one at top, and then see Mark Zug's work and not see Pyle and Wyeth all over. The Hildebrandts, too, in their earlier fantasy years.
Sometimes the influence is subtle, sometimes overt, other times it's direct homage, as with the late Darrell Sweet below:
Howard Pyle (L), Darrell Sweet (R) Not a coincidence.
"But I live far away, Randy, and can't get to Wilmington DE!" Well, the show catalog will have to suffice. It's good, overall, although Pyle's work in particular always suffers a bit from skewing to dark, or being overexposed. Many of the color plates however are good enough, a few excelllent. If possible, I'd like to take another 3-hour drive down myself to see it again before it ends.