There's hardly a story about any American illustrator that sooner or later doesn't mention the name of one man--Howard Pyle. One might even go so far as to call him the father of American illustration. But it's hard to get a grasp of the importance of this man without looking at what came before. One of his best predecessors was A.B. Frost. Before Pyle, there was a staged quality to American book illustration, as if actors were drawn from a point of view "front row centre" with a theatrical set, props, and costumes. Pyle brought to illustration a writer's perspective, because he enjoyed writing and was probably as good at it as he was in illustration. In fact he illustrated several of his own books and stories, among them, The Adventure of Robin Hood and The Story of King Arthur and His Knights. Armed with a writer's imagination he poured the same unique qualities into his drawings. They never seemed staged, but instead evoked a kind of dynamic drama, with unusual angles, dark backgrounds, action, adventure, human emotion--the work of a writer who could draw.
Pyle was born in 1853 on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware. His home still stands today, though it's now well within the city. His father was a leather worker, his mother a woman who saw to it her son had an idyllic childhood, nurturing his bookish tendencies; his enjoyment in reading, writing, and drawing. His first successes came in blindly sending samples of his work to leading New York magazines where, to everyone's surprise, they were immediately accepted. Scribners was one of his early outlets. A trip to New York by his father, who dropped in on Scribners ended with his son being invited to move to New York, with the assurance that there was plenty of work for him there. Pyle moved to New York, but quickly discovered the work was slim, menial, and his artistic skills woefully lacking. Studies at The Art Students League and later Drexel Institute in Philadelphia sharpened his knowledge of the human figure, colour, and the technical needs of the engraver.
Howard Pyle came to illustration at a most opportune moment. It was at a time when nationally circulating publications were on the rise, printing techniques allowed for the move from woodcuts to metal plates, and when colour printing was in its infancy. Pyle developed his skills to match the best the printing industry had to offer, catering to their needs while allowing their best efforts to mingle with his own vivid imagination. After a stint in New York with Scribners, Harpers, and the children's magazine, St. Nicholas, Pyle moved to Philadelphia where he taught at Drexel Institute for two years, before moving back home to Wilmington and starting a kind of free graduate school for top illustrators. There, from a list of some 1,300 applicants, he chose twelve, sharpening the skills of the next generation - N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Thornton Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Wilcox, Stanley Artherus, Ida Daughtery, Harvey Dunn, and others. The school lasted only from 1900-1903, although Pyle continued helping his former students for several years while his work itself came to influence dozens of others whom he didn't actually teach. Late in his career, he took up the challenge of mural painting, gaining a whole new level of fame, respect, and financial success.
For many years, Pyle resisted the common practice of finishing off one's art education in Europe. He was fifty-seven before he finally succumbed to the temptation to visit Europe. During most of the trip he was ill. He hated Rome, visited Siena and Genoa, before falling in love with Florence where he remained for several months. It was in Florence he changed his mind and decided that maybe the European masters actually did have something to offer American art. Ironically, t’was there that he died of a kidney infection in 1911; and there too, that this greatest of American illustrators was buried on foreign soil.