Sunday, May 10, 2009

Brandywine, continued

After mulling over the last post, I believe it might be good to supply some background information on the "Brandywine school." I've been knee-deep in the works of its participants for a good many years now, but I know that may not be the case for everyone, especially someone in school now, or just coming to know this group of illustrator/painters. So even though we touched base with Howard Pyle last entry, I want to explain a bit about the movement he was such a catalyst for.

"Brandywine" refers to a valley, and a river, that exist in southeast PA (just west of Philadelphia), and the northernmost part of Delaware. The "Brandywine School" is a phrase talked about frequently in circles concerning early American illustration. It is a movement, not literally a school, though there were two schools that had a great deal to do with this movement getting off the ground, Drexel University, from 1894-1900, and Howard Pyle's own school, from the years 1900-1905.

Geography. This area was a real breeding ground for fertile imagination. It was far enough removed, that it still had very wild and native looking forest, perfect backdrops for images concerning the early history of our nation. At the same time, it was close enough to two of the biggest publishing cities in the northeast, New York (by train) and Philadelphia, so that an aspiring illustrator could maintain business contacts.

History. Not only is the area steeped in Revolutionary history, but a generation before Howard Pyle, Felix O'Darley was working in these parts. O'Darley was one of the earliest illustrators to break from stayed, dry poses in search of action. Howard Pyle spent some time in New York at the early part of his career, but longed for and eventually returned to the Brandywine Valley. After teaching at Philadelphia's Drexel University, he decided to open his own school, where he went on to hand pick his own students. The goal here was not financial, it was about Pyle passing on his trade, and his success, to the next generation of artists. The Howard Pyle School of Art ran from studios that Pyle had built in the Wilmington area, and held summer classes out of an old Mill in Chadd's Ford PA. This mill is the very building you will visit today, if you head on down to the Brandywine Museum. If this material speaks to you as it does to me, this experience borders on religious. It is truly a pilgrimage for any student of illustration.

Results. Pyle saw about 110 students in those few years. Their timing, and his, was very fortuitous—Publishing was going through its biggest boom, and there was plenty of work, in books, magazines, and newspapers, to go around. It seems that most of the students that possessed any serious ambition had little or no problem finding work after training under Pyle, and publishers were happy to have them.

Style and Content. When an image is described as being from the Brandywine school, it usually means it comes from Pyle, one of his students, or one of their students. Many, many of Pyle's pupils admired him enough to feel a need to carry on, and do as he had done for them. His ethics and methods have been impressed upon generations of artists. Pyle's love for historical subjects, from early Norse myths to the American Civil War—comprise a large percentage of his work, and there are few historical painters who do not claim the Brandywine group as influential. Palette, composition, focus, accuracy of details (especially historical) are all features that may lend to a piece being called "of the Brandywine school".
The Brandywine Tradition by Henry Pitz, the definative history of what makes a piece from the Brandywine school-
A shot of Pyle and a group of students at the Mill at Chadd's Ford, in 1902. What I would give to have had that opportunity. Pyle is the one in the hat, standing in the doorway.