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  • Howard Pyle: Imagining An American School of Art by Jill P. May, Robert E. May
  • Michael Joseph (bio)
Howard Pyle: Imagining An American School of Art. By Jill P. May and Robert E. May. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

The Mays’ excellent biography examines Howard Pyle’s life and work with great thoroughness and sympathy, building meaningfully on contemporary Pyle scholarship, including Jill May’s own previous explorations. Characterizing their work as “an act of rediscovery” (ix) (a recurring theme in Pyle studies), the authors present their subject as an exemplary teacher, an author for whom writing came easily, and an illustrator with a profound understanding of the interpretive responsibilities and powers of the art. They also offer a luminous discussion of Pyle’s formative beliefs in the mystical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. The depth and breadth of original source material and the elegant weave of their lively narrative particularly distinguish their work, usefully organized into eight chronologically sequential chapters.

The opening chapter demonstrates that as an aspiring illustrator, Pyle achieved early success, came to New York, found common cause with other artists also studying at The Art Students League, exhibited to critical acclaim, and seemed to solidify his standing as an up-and-coming New York artist, only to abandon the city and return to Wilmington, Delaware, then known for ship-building, gunpowder, and leather. Pyle’s remarkable turnabout arises from a patriotic calling to remain “an American artist untainted by foreign techniques and [End Page 158] perspectives” (22). The authors explain that his decision determined the trajectory of his career and ultimately influenced the course of American illustration, but not why Pyle should feel so patriotically inclined.

Chapter two discusses Pyle’s rise to stardom in the decades of the 1880s and ’90s, a well-known story, but made valuable and citable by the granularity of detail and by a finely etched portrait of “an intense and intellectual relationship” (35) with William Dean Howells. Pyle’s famous adventure stories, such as The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire (1883) and his buccaneering tales for young and older audiences, including The Story of Jack Ballister’s Fortunes (1895), which have been thoroughly discussed by earlier scholars, are appropriately given a fly-over treatment.

Chapters three and four discuss in considerable depth Pyle’s important role as teacher, the text’s most significant area of concentration. Particularly edifying are the comments dealing with the progressive movement for art education for women and the national trend toward creating an American artistic tradition in Northeastern cities such as Philadelphia and New York. Vivid accounts of classes at the newly opened Drexel Institute and an open-air studio at Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, provide readers with a high-definition picture of Pyle lecturing, critiquing the work of his students, arranging for their exhibitions, and guiding their careers by seeking out publishing contracts on their behalf. His energetic, wholehearted, and exemplary commitment to teaching is amply reciprocated by the loyalty and admiration of his students. The extent to which they identify themselves with Pyle and his artistic precepts, both during their student days and long afterward, buttresses the book’s case that Pyle’s greatness depends no less on his inspirational teaching than on his writing and illustration.

Chapter four concludes with Pyle’s decision in 1900 to leave Drexel to focus on a smaller cadre of the “truly gifted” (94) at the Howard Pyle School of Art on Franklin Street in Wilmington, which the authors insightfully characterize as an artists’ colony for young artists. Chapter five explores life at the school as well as at Chadds Ford, which came to serve as its summer extension, during the early years of the twentieth century. The authors emphasize that Pyle founded his school on nationalist and spiritual beliefs. He urged students to open their souls to the “impress of nature divine” (112), a transcendent principle that would empower them to make pictures to “fit some need of the soul” (112). For Pyle, the “need of the soul” was linked to American history. Declaring “that the painters of true American Art are yet to be produced” (98), he hoped that...


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pp. 158-163
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