Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where it all started (American illustration)

It is a bit surprising to me that we've gotten this far down the road without looking at Howard Pyle (1853-1911) yet. If I hadn't been knee deep in Willy Pogány books at the time, it very likely would have been Pyle we kicked things off with. There are two very good reasons.

The first is personal; my own fascination with Golden-age illustration began in the late 70's, at a yard sale in Rahway, New Jersey. A rather large Victorian household had rows and stacks of stuff all up and down its long driveway. Here I found incredible amounts of what I now believe to be press proofs, from the printing presses of Harpers magazines. I bought all I could afford at the time, which unfortunately wasn't much. (If I came across this sale nowadays, I can't imagine the financial stress it would cause me...) I beleive these were proofs because I now know the publications these images came from. The sheets these prints are on, while being either similar to press stock or tissue, are noticeably larger than the publications were....

This is where I first found Howard Pyle, and a number of his contemporaries, but Pyle's work captured my attention the most. The plate that really got me; is this one at the top right. This engraving so far surpassed other work I was familiar with... it had real emotion, character, storytelling, ATTITUDE. And that was all in one piece of black and white work. Check out the guys in the background, and their reaction to this yankee privateer—

Fast forward to 1984. After seeing the work I was producing, my second year painting teacher asks me to bring in some of what I think is good work. I bring him books of the hottest science fiction and fantasy book-jacket guys of the day. He asks if I 've ever heard of the Brandywine school, and sends me to the library. Thanks, Mr. Fritz.

The second (and far less personal) reason Pyle is so important, is; I do not believe there has been a single more influential artist than Pyle on American illustration. (listen for feathers ruffling) He was the biggest rock to go in the pond. Ripples? Practically immeasurable. During an immensely successful career, Howard Pyle decided it was his calling to teach his craft, not to numb masses filing through modern art schools, but to a select group, the best of the best, hand-picked by Pyle himself. He had a great eye for talent, apparently, because his first-generation students are among the tops in all of American illustration, during the first half of the 20th century. Cream of that crop? Frank Schoonover, Harvey Dunn, Stanley Arthurs, Elizabeth Shippen-Green, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Anton Otto Fisher, William James Aylward...whew. Pyle crossed brushes with a young upstart by the name of Maxfield Parrish—already taking on big jobs before he got to Pyle's school—Pyle told him he was already well on his way, and was in no need of his teachings. Oh, yeah, then there was that N. C. Wyeth fellow. Nice guy. And many of Pyle's students became teachers as well, spreading it on down. Ripples.

Any of these artists warrant a page of their own here on VIEW. Most have had a page or three elsewhere, hence the links. (Again, Jim Vadeboncouer has blazed the trail here) Most will get one. Pyle will get a few, for different aspects of his work; Wyeth and Parrish, yes, they are also a multi-page guys. More to follow on this soon-


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