Howard Pyle (1853-1911) an American artist, illustrator, author, and teacher was declared at the time of his death by the New York Times—“the father of American magazine illustration.”
Howard Pyle asked in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1897, “Why have we no national art?” So, he began the discussion and creation of an American historical identity through his art.
Today, Howard Pyle is not nearly as well known, as are his magnificent images. However, back in the day, he was America’s most popular illustrator and storyteller. In effect, he was like a “movie star” in modern times. His illustrations appeared in magazines like Harper’s Monthly, Colliers Weekly, St. Nicholas, and Scribner’s Magazine—this exposure gained him national and world wide acclaim. Evidence of such recognition came from an unlikely source. In a letter to his brother, Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “Do you know an American magazine—Harper’s Monthly? There are wonderful sketches in it… which strike me in admiration…by one Howard Pyle.” Today, many Americans have admired his images without knowing his name.
A short discussion of Pyle’s background and style follows. Americans had seen his work in school books, in art galleries, and in the study of the American Revolution. Many are struck by the style, force and vivacity of his images. His art spoke with a compelling, emotional force. Further examination of his style found that his heroes were depicted with a lively, animated quality of realism. In support of his legacy, there was evidence that he collaborated with renowned writers, politicians, historians, and poets. His most noteworthy colleagues were; Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Cabot Lodge, Woodrow Wilson, William Dean Howells, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Our discussion will be limited to a few of his paintings and an illustration of the American Revolution. Pyle’s work transformed American’s individual perceptions of the American Revolution into a collective set of national ideals. In effect, he shared his values with Americans by making us privy to historical moments between our American heroes and their supreme moments. Second, he took us back into history to experience an emerging moment that resonated through their animated faces and actions. Finally, he had the ability to consistently look for what he called the “supreme moment,” the phase of action that conveyed the most suspense. In a nutshell, Pyle’s art helped our nation to visualize and value its authentic history.
A brief description of his work will help us to discover or rediscover his masterful depictions of the American Revolution.
“Retreating through the Jerseys,” showed the strong relationship between Washington and his men. The orderliness of their retreat exemplified a unity and strength, even as the outcome of the war was doubtful. Washington’s confidence and leadership in retreat gave his men a sense that their lives mattered; such was evidenced by the General’s careful strategy for engaging with the enemy. He defended his troops against annihilation and decimation by using retreat to save their lives. As a result, when he commanded them into battle, they trusted his leadership. Pyle captured the dramatic retreat and the esprit d’ corps of the army marching in step with General Washington leading the way. United we stand, divided we fall appeared to be the valued expressed in his painting.
Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, arrived at General Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge in 1778, he brought with him a renewed sense of spirit to Washington and the Continental Army. He commenced training soldiers in close order drill, instilling new confidence and discipline in the demoralized army. The painting of “General Washington and Baron Von Steuben at Valley Forge,” stimulated one’s senses and feelings for the chilling outdoors. It was the dead of winter with freezing temperatures; blowing winds, and the sound of crunching snow was heard beneath army boots. The drawing invited Americans into the picture to share the enduring hardships with every soldier who served at Valley Forge. The importance of self-sacrifice in the name of freedom was implied.
Baron Von Steuben established standards of sanitation which included the order by General Washington to vaccinate his troops against smallpox. It was a decision that saved his army from disease and death, which became pivotal to the outcome of the war—the bonding between the generals was a dramatic moment in the history of the American Revolution.
The Battle of Flamborough Head of 1779, featured a favorite American naval hero of Pyle. John Paul Jones raised his sabre in defiance of the British commander’s request to surrender. He defied the request with his famous reply, “I have not yet begun to fight.” If you allow yourself to be drawn into the painting, one’s senses become overwhelmed with its sights and sounds; Cannons ablaze, muskets a fire, smoke filled the air, as Jones fought with desire. Jones transformed the naval battle with his bravery and determination to overcome the odds and achieve victory. Pyle made us a part of that moment by depicting Jones as a hero. Jones’ hero like qualities were expressed through an intense facial expression and strong body posture. Furthermore, his image of Jones was rebellious, defiant, and unshaken in the face of the enemy.
In a sketch of “General Washington’s Refusal to be King,“ Colonel Lewis Nicola presented him with a written document to declare Washington as King. Washington fiercely refused, as he discarded the document to the floor. The mood in the drawing is defined by Washington’s unemotional rejection of the proposal in a room filled with silence. It appeared that the importance of loyalty to country was his underlying message.
The Battle of Bunker Hill,” pictured the British troops commanded by Major General William Howe; they were directed to make a second charge up Bunker Hill. They were accompanied by the sounds of fife and drum with a stern determination to retake the hill. The painting expressed the bravery and resolution of the colonists as they had to…wait until the last minute to fire. “Wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes,” shouted Colonel William Prescott to his troops. The British generals were astonished by the bravery of the colonists that day on Bunker Hill in 1775. Pyle painted the British army as a mass of military humanity, disciplined, battle tested, and as a fearless fighting machine. His illustration dramatized the moment of truth.
Howard Pyle’s genius as a man was never in doubt, but it was Pyle’s visual storytelling that was remembered more than the man himself, and that was his legacy.
He helped the people of our nation to see —what it meant to be an American.