The Thinking 

Howard Pyle

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Pyle and Childhood

November 9, 2011



[The Mermaid, Howard Pyle; 1910. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.] 

THE WORKS of the great American illustrator Howard Pyle, who died 100 years ago today, are a message from the past.  In the hundred years since Pyle died, the world of children has changed profoundly. It has not changed all for the worse obviously. Medical care is much better and living conditions are good. However, children no longer inhabit a mentally separate realm. It’s not just that they are exposed to sexually-explicit imagery and music. Even in run-of-the-mill commercials, as Neil Postman noted in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, children are initiated into the world of adult worries and concerns. In commercials about prescription drugs, car insurance and politics, they encounter the trivial preoccupations of adult life.

Childhood is in some ways a form of higher awareness. “What a distressing contrast there is,” said Sigmund Freud, “between the radiant intelligence of a child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Children know things adults can no longer fully grasp.  The adult world once protected that knowledge and melded it gradually with reason, information, practical ability and wisdom. Technological change and spiritual decline have abolished that protection. It is gone in a larger cultural sense and the individual parent is left to fight against the prevailing tide.

Fortunately, Howard Pyle is still alive. Just last weekend, I was at a library book sale when, as I was about to leave, I turned to a table of children’s classics. There for $2 was the 1919 edition of Howard Pyle’s novel Men of Iron. It was one of those moments of synchronicity, given that I have been writing about Pyle, that have convinced me over the years that angels have specific interests and like to interfere with our reading. Men of Iron is the fictional account of the young son of a lord during the reign of Henry IV who is unjustly accused of treason. The son, Myles Falworth, sets out to avenge his father and recover his family’s good name. Pyle’s illustration below, courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum (now staging a major retrospective of his work), depicts Henry IV on the first page of the book.

I brought the book home. It was a message from a past that still lives and from a remarkable man who had a sense of the inherent nobility of his artistic mission. Where the children’s illustrator today offers unease, confusion and escape in the occult, Pyle offered the heroic. He gave children a reason to anticipate adulthood with excitement and to perceive it for what it is, even in modern cities and office parks: a battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.


men of iron

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Pyle in His Studio, 1898

November 8, 2011

 Pyle in his studio


HERE IS A photo of Howard Pyle taken by C.P.M. Runeford in 1898 (courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.) A reader named Jim writes:

Growing up, my mother read me stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and I loved the Howard Pyle illustrations. I assumed that everyone was read these stories, along with Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now I realize how lucky I was.


Pyle on Imagination

November 8, 2011


Delaware Art Museum

 [“We Started to Run Back to the Raft For Our Lives,” Howard Pyle, 1902. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.]

I was looking up this painting by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle, whose centennial I have been honoring in recent posts, when I found a blog devoted to the artist. Under a reproduction of this Pyle illustration of “Sinbad on Burrator” by A. T. Quiller Couch in Scribner’s Magazine for August 1902, the blog’s author Ian Schoenherr quotes this letter from the artist to William Merchant Richardson French, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, in June 22, 1905. These words express what every great artist knows, that though art depicts reality, its main source of knowledge is unseen:

…I think you may easily see that in the making of a successful picture, the artist must compose and arrange his figures and effects altogether from his imagination, and that there is very little opportunity in the making of such a picture for him to copy exactly the position of a model placed before him in the lights and shadows which the studios afford. Nor is it likely that he can find any background to copy accurately and exactly into such an imaginative picture. Read More »


Pyle on the Rush from the Stock Exchange

November 5, 2011


stock exchange pyle

THIS IS Howard Pyle’s illustration, The Rush from the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 18, 1873. It appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in July, 1895. Pyle, who lived from 1853 to 1911, was one of America’s most popular illustrators. His works were featured in Harper’s Monthly, Collier’s Weekly, St. Nicholas, and Scribner’s. He also illustrated works of myth and fiction, including books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain. He wrote his own fictional works for children, such as Men of Iron and The Wonder Clock.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “Do you know an American magazine Harpers Monthly? There are wonderful sketches in it … which strike me dumb with admiration … by Howard Pyle.” November 9 is the hundredth anniversary of Pyle’s death. A major exhibit of his works opens at the Delaware Art Museum on November 12.


Pyle with His Children

November 3, 2011


big pyle and children

Howard Pyle at Rehoboth Beach (Delaware Art Museum)

HERE is the famous American illustrator Howard Pyle on the beach with his children in 1897. I will be featuring more of his illustrations in the next few days in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his death on Nov. 9.


One of Pyle’s Pirates

November 3, 2011


Marooned, Howard Pyle (Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum)

Marooned; Howard Pyle, 1909 (Courtesy of Delaware Art Museum)

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