Howard Pyle: Illustrator, Author, and Teacher
Based on a March 2014 lecture given by Dr. David Murphy
American illustrator and author Howard Pyle was born on March 5, 1853, to a Quaker family in Delaware. As a teenager, he studied art in Philadelphia with F.A. Van der Weilen, then began writing and illustrating his own stories.
Pyle’s big break came in 1876 when Scribner’s Magazine accepted one of his pieces. He moved to New York City for further art study and continued to do more magazine work. After coming home to Delaware in 1879, Pyle set about writing and illustrating various books, including the Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which was published in 1883. By this time, he had published stories and drawings in many different magazines; pirates, patriots, and princesses were common subjects.
He was well-known among artists and intellectuals of his day, a prominent member of the art establishment as well as the illustrator community (which other artists often belittled for being commercial). Vincent Van Gogh’s letters mention Pyle repeatedly–it’s clear that Van Gogh admired his work. While Woodrow Wilson was still a history professor (before his presidency), Pyle illustrated Wilson’s book about George Washington–much to Wilson’s delight.
Pyle’s illustrator and author talents were a great combination. He wrote and illustrated The Wonder Clock (featuring a tale for every hour in the day), Twilight Land (new fables), Otto of the Silver Hand, Men of Iron, four volumes on King Arthur, and many other tales as well. He liked to dictate the stories while working on his illustrations. You can see the influence of Albrecht Dürer in his drawing style and perspective.
His stories are amusing, but often have morals too–not always to everyone’s taste, as Robert Louis Stevenson made clear: “I thought ALADDIN capital fun; but why, in fortune, did he pretend it was moral at the end?” (Letter to Mrs. Fairchild, March 1892) Whatever Stevenson thought of Pyle’s moralizing, he did appreciate Pyle’s illustrations! In the 1880s, Pyle and Stevenson defined the popular idea of pirates.
Starting in 1894, Pyle taught art lessons at the Drexel Institute of Technology. In 1900, he founded his own art school in Wilmington, DE. He taught a wide variety of subjects ranging from classical art to historical clothing and practical illustration skills, with a focus on developing imagination; incredibly, he refused to charge for his teaching. His many students included Maxfield Parrish, Frank Schoonover, Harvey Dunn, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and N.C. Wyeth. (If you look closely, you’ll notice that in many cases, Wyeth’s painting is very similar to Pyle’s drawing of the same scene.) Although he died in 1911, Pyle’s legacy lived on through his students.
Bibliography: (These are great resources to explore if you’re interested in learning more about Howard Pyle.)
The St. Nicholas (magazine) tribute page
Howard Pyle: The Man Who Rewrote History page (includes a listing of his books)
National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI) page on Pyle:
Howard Pyle blogspot (a great resource for ideas and information)
Lines and Colors blog about Pyle
We also recommend The Baldwin Online Children’s Project, which features classic children’s literature online, with many of the original illustrations.
The Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA has works by Howard Pyle, the Wyeths, and many other famous artists. At their website, you can view highlights of the collection and find information for planning a visit–it’s worth a trip if you live in the area.
Dr. David Murphy grew up in a family that enjoyed classic illustrated tales and comics. Now an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Hillsdale College, his research interests include representation theory, invariant theory, and recreational mathematics (how to solve puzzles); he recently coauthored the textbook Algebraic Geometry: A Problem Solving Approach, published by the American Mathematical Society in 2014. Outside the classroom, he’s still an enthusiastic collector of works by Howard Pyle and other classic illustrators.
This material is reprinted here for educational purposes only, with the permission of the authors who retain copyright to this work. Many thanks to Dr. Murphy for sharing his time and knowledge in order to make this post possible.