Howard Pyle, the First Action Hero

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Howard Pyle's pictures look exactly like the movies, which is impressive because he painted lots of them before there were movies.

The swordfights are the same. The lighting is the same. Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood (1922) and jaunty Errol Flynn's (1938) are very much like the Robin that Pyle drew in 1883. They strike the same poses and dress from the same costume box. Hollywood is coming when you look at Pyle's art.

That's one reason why he matters. His students are another. The men and women he instructed -- in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, in Chadds Ford at Brinton's Mill -- include Maxfield Parrish, Frank E. Schoonover and Elizabeth Shippen Green. He predicted a great art form. He founded his own school of vivid, full-of-action American illustration. N.C. Wyeth called him "master." You'd think that'd be enough.

It isn't. Many texts ignore him. Most art museums stiff him. The biggest ones in Washington (the American Art Museum, the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art) pay him no attention. Now at least he can be glimpsed in "Howard Pyle and Illustrators of the Brandywine School," a valiant little show hanging in the hallway at the Federal Reserve Board.

Pyle was no abstractionist. He was a Pennsylvania Quaker, born before the Civil War, who thee-ed and thou-ed his parents and learned his skills the old way, by copying the masters (Albrecht Durer, in particular), by memorizing bones. His isn't modern art. It's olden-days art. What keeps his figures vivid is the way they seem to move.

This isn't trivial. Giving action to the image is one of the Big Things in the past 150 years of the history of art. Pyle's painted figures may not be as fast as Jackson Pollock's drips (which seem to zoom at warp speed) but they are action-packed. His swordsmen don't just stand there. They parry and they lunge.

Those who hold their noses when looking at his pictures -- and this includes a lot of curators -- see Pyle's work as story-based and middlebrow and therefore unimportant. They don't think Pyle counts. Like other popular American masters of mass-market reproduction, like Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney, Pyle remains beyond the scope of their interests. This seems to me wrongheaded. With the 20th century over, it should by now be clear that the imprint of their art is everywhere around us. It is inside us as well.

Fairy-tale princesses, knights in shining armor, Caribbean pirates, frontiersmen in canoes -- all these prototypes inhabit our shared imaginations. Pyle helped invent them. Before there were movie theaters in the neighborhood, before there were television sets in the living room, the way these vivid figures streamed into our lives was mostly through the pages of family magazines -- Harper's Monthly, Collier's Weekly, St. Nicholas or Scribner's. In that world, Pyle thrived.

Factory-produced illustrated magazines were a British innovation, but they prospered in America, and Pyle rode the wave. He was no cynic. He felt his stories viscerally. What makes his pictures work is how deeply and wholeheartedly he imagined and believed.

Magazine illustrations had been transporting him since childhood. "My mother was very fond of pictures in books," he wrote at his life's end. "I can remember many and many an hour in which I lay stretched out upon the rug in the snug, little library, whilst the hickory logs snapped and crackled in the fireplace . . . many and many an hour do I remember lying thus turning over leaf after leaf of those English papers."

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to command the rough-hewn crew of an 18th-century sailing ship? That Pyle gave that prospect his undivided thought is perfectly apparent in an 1887 above-decks scene in sepia wash at the Federal Reserve.

His students strove to make their pictures as compelling. It is shuddery to see a supernatural waterspout rising like a hissing snake in Frank Schoonover's "The Cobra's Head" (1931). In a Maxfield Parrish pen-and-ink from 1899, an evil, hooknose witch rides her broomstick across the sky just about as scarily as another would do later in "The Wizard of Oz."

The exhibition offers 11 minor Pyles and about as many pictures produced by his students. Stalwart Mary Anne Goley, who long has run the fine arts program at the Federal Reserve, found most of these objects in storage in the Free Library of Philadelphia.

They're not that easy to see here. To get into the Pyle show you have to make a reservation at least a day ahead, and then go through the drill of an airport-stringent screening -- but then in what museum here can art like this be seen?

Pyle was a player once. His artist pals included Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French and mighty Winslow Homer. They took his pictures seriously. It may happen yet again.

To gain entry to Howard Pyle and Illustrators of the Brandywine School at the Federal Reserve Board's headquarters, on 20th Street off Constitution Avenue NW, telephone for a reservation at least a day ahead. The number is 202-452-3778. The Pyle show will remain on view through March 30. Admission is free.

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