Howard Pyle: Art Philosophy & Teaching

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we will learn about the life and times of American author and illustrator Howard Pyle. After exploring his philosophy of art, we will discover facts about his pedagogy, students, and teaching practice.

Pictures Tell Stories

It is more likely that you would recognize one of Howard Pyle's illustrations than his name or work as an author. Howard Pyle (1853-1911) is best known as an American illustrator. He was also an author and educator. He illustrated most of the books that he wrote. The key to his artistic and educational philosophy could be described as: let the picture tell the story. His prolific library of richly illustrated works includes legends, history, adventure, and children's stories.

For example, in the illustration below, Pyle depicts two men desperately clinging to a rope as the rats encroach. They will fall into the sea.

He lost his hold and fell, taking me with him, illustrated by Howard Pyle. (The Grain Ship, written by Morgan Robertson.)
Pyle 1

Pyle played an instrumental role in the development of a philosophy and pedagogy of illustration during a crucial time in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, a new, mass audience emerged in response to nationally circulated newspapers and illustrated magazines. The privileged place that high art once held was giving way to mass art. As a result, the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries is known as the 'Golden Age of American Illustration.' Howard Pyle was at the forefront of the movement.

Pyle's Philosophy of Art

Howard Pyle took an approach to art practice that was radical for its time. Around the turn of the 20th century, conservatory-based art programs emphasized precision of technique and learning from the examples passed down by the classical masters. Students were taught to imitate and to learn by repetition. In art, imitation is the practice of copying inert objects by repetition, in order to perfect a style.

Pyle, on the other hand, grew to believe that art didn't need to follow tradition. He believed that imitation and repetition could teach skill, but not originality. Therefore, in Pyle's view, drawing from a staged scene was insufficient. True composition required artists to draw from 'real life.' By drawing a soft distinction between drawing from real life experience and creating a composition entirely from the imagination, Pyle developed a practical philosophy for what he termed projection. In doing so, Pyle departed from convention to create a new kind of art: an art that was infused with both realism and magic. Pyle's art philosophy, in a sense, collapsed the distinction between realism and fantasy. In this way, illustrators could blend experience and imagination.

Ultimately, in Pyle's view, a work of art should draw from life while also representing the artist's unique vision of what he or she had seen. Howard Pyle's philosophy of art was experiential. He wrote: ''Art is not a transcript nor a copy. Art is the expression of those beauties and emotions that stir the human soul.''

The Burning of Jamestown, illustrated by Howard Pyle. (Harpers Encyclopaedia of United States History: from 458 A.D. to 1905, written by Benson John Lossing.)
Pyle 2

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