In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh spoke of an American artist whose work "struck me dumb with admiration.” That artist who dumbstruck van Gogh was none other than Howard Pyle, born March 5, 1856. The dean of American Illustration at the beginning of the twentieth century, Pyle founded the so-called Brandywine School of art, beginning with his star pupil N. C. Wyeth and continuing with the next two generations of Wyeths, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth. Pyle specialized in the special magic of myth and legend aimed at the imagination of the young, particularly in his works The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and his four-volume set following the exploits of King Arthur and his court. Thus the Princess Cometh Forth from the Castle at Twelve O’Clock (above, from 1902) shows the florid, detail-rich style of Pyle when tackling Arthurian tales and other grand subjects. Anyone looking for the roots of the Wyeth imagination need search no further than the works of Howard Pyle.
Pyle loved illustrating tales of pirates with works such as The Buccaneer (above). The pure menace such cutthroat figures exuded made for the high drama on the high seas that Pyle loved to put not only into pictures but also into words. That high drama, however, never came at the cost of questionable morality. Pyle always maintained very high moral standards for his works, continually conscious of the malleability of young minds. When retelling tales of Robin Hood in which the classic anti-hero robs a wealthy villain of all his treasure, Pyle rewrote it so that the loot was divided three ways between Robin, the rich man, and the poor. In Pyle’s Sherwood Forrest, Robin Hood takes some from the rich and gives some to the poor. Pyle’s Robin also only kills in self-defense, setting the stage for Hollywood’s similarly sanitized version of Robin Hood.
I remember driving down to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania late last year and passing Pyle’s old home, known as Painter’s Folly, and the building that once housed his school, now used by the local government. Nearby lies the site of the Battle of Brandywine during the American Revolution. Pyle found the mythology of the founding of the United States of America as enticing as that of Europe. His painting The Battle of Bunker Hill (above, from 1897) shows the meticulous detail he brought to all his works as well as the same drama found in his tales of Arthur or Robin. Pyle traveled to Italy in 1910 to study mural painting and died there of a sudden kidney infection. How his art, and that of his students, would have evolved after prolonged exposure to the Italian Renaissance, we’ll never know. At the very least, his choice of Chadds Ford, with its echoes of the dark forests of Europe as well as the origins of the American nation, created a magical place to which later generations continually returned and still return for a source of inspiration.