Howard Pyle and Vincent Van Gogh: Reflections on Changes in Taste

by Danielle Rice, Executive Director, Delaware Art Museum

Photograph of Howard Pyle, c. 1890

Howard Pyle and Vincent van Gogh were both born a few weeks apart in 1853.  Both died young, although van Gogh predeceased Pyle by more than two decades.  Pyle achieved both fame and fortune in his lifetime – so much so that Vincent van Gogh mentions Howard Pyle at least eleven times in letters to his brother Theo and his friend, the Dutch painter Anthon van Rappard.[i]

Van Gogh, on the other hand, died virtually unknown except to a small circle of friends.  Certainly, Pyle would not have been aware of his troubled contemporary or his work.  But the passage of time and changes in the art world reversed the fortunes of these two artists.  Today, van Gogh is one of the best known and most highly treasured artists today, while Pyle’s name is known only to a few illustrators and people with connections to Delaware.  With the concurrent exhibitions of van Gogh’s art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Howard Pyle at the Delaware Art Museum (closes March 4, 2012), it makes sense to consider how and why this might have happened.

Howard Pyle was born on March 5, 1853 in Wilmington, Delaware, where he spent most of his life.  Van Gogh was born on March 30 of the same year in a small town in the south of The Netherlands.  Pyle’s education and career were based entirely in the United States, but because he worked for illustrated journals such as Harper’s Monthly Magazine and Scribner’s, which enjoyed an international distribution, his work became well-known.  His reputation during the 1880s and 1890s was similar to that of a movie star today.

Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh, c. 1889

An avid writer as well as an artist, Pyle was a family man and a beloved teacher, responsible for initiating what came to be known as the Brandywine School of Art.  Unlike the even-tempered Pyle, van Gogh suffered from mental illness and had trouble maintaining relationships.  He was, however, highly literate and spoke several languages fluently, including Dutch, French and English.  He worked briefly as an art dealer in The Hague and London before embarking on his career as an artist.

Largely self-taught as a painter, Van Gogh developed a uniquely expressive style and close relationships with a number of French artists who were challenging the traditional methods and techniques of art. In a letter to his brother Theo dated September 11, 1882, Vincent van Gogh writes: “Do you know an American periodical called Harper’s Monthly Magazine? – there are marvelous sketches in it. I don’t know it very well, I’ve only seen six months of it and have only 3 issues myself, but there are things in it I find astounding. Among them a glass-blower’s and an iron foundry, all kinds of scenes of factory work.  As well as sketches of a Quaker town in the old days by Howard Pyle.” For van Gogh, Howard Pyle and Pyle’s friend, the illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey, represented the best art that America had to offer.  And he defends their work to Anthon van Rappard saying: “I believe you’ll agree with me that not all Americans are bad. That, on the contrary, there too extremes meet, and that besides a host of noisemakers and bunglers of the most insufferable and impossible sorts there are characters who have the effect of a lily or a snowdrop among thorns.”  (May 9, 1883).

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, by Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

So for van Gogh, Pyle’s art was a breath of fresh air and a source of delight and inspiration.  During the last years of his life van Gogh’s reputation grew steadily among a small group of friends and admirers.  After his death in 1890 memorial exhibitions of van Gogh’s art were mounted throughout Europe and as avant-garde art movements gathered strength, so did van Gogh’s reputation.  Generations of young artists found inspiration in his bold colors and dramatic forms.

Ironically, towards the end of his life, Howard Pyle’s reputation was already waning.  Aware of the fact that the glory days of American illustration were coming to an end, Pyle began to study mural art.  It is for this reason that he took his first trip to Europe to study the great Renaissance masters of Italy.  He died in Florence in 1911.  In 1912, thousands of Pyle admirers visited the exhibition of his art in the DuPont building in downtown Wilmington.  A year later, in 1913, American audiences had their first-hand exposure to Vincent van Gogh’s art in the famous Armory Show in New York.

Marooned, 1909, by Howard Pyle, Delaware Art Museum

The reputations of Pyle and van Gogh diverged so completely during the first half of the 20th century for a number of reasons.  Illustration art declined in volume and popularity and was gradually replaced by photography.  At the same time the accurate reproduction of reality became less important in art.  The rise of the avant-garde in the art world not only overshadowed more conservative academic styles of art  but it also created a large divide between the fine arts—art for art’s sake—and the applied or commercial arts.  Illustrators, who in the 19th century studied alongside and built careers parallel to those of so-called fine artists, became progressively marginalized by the art world as commercial artists.  It is interesting to note, that while Howard Pyle was never concerned about his status as an illustrator, a generation later Pyle’s student, N.C. Wyeth, struggled against being an illustrator all his life.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, van Gogh’s meteoric posthumous ascension to fame is linked to a major change in the qualities that people came to value in art.  Whereas during these artists’ lifetimes people valued art’s ability to tell a story (hence Pyle’s enormous reputation), after their deaths people placed a much higher value on originality and self-expression as the defining characteristics of fine art.  As the information age developed and movies and television became the primary conduits of stories, Pyle’s influence continued in the many Hollywood renditions of his popular stories of knights and pirates.   On the other hand, the story of Pyle’s gentle, middle-class existence could not compete with the drama of van Gogh’s tortured life and with the artist’s bold and expressive works.  Fortunately, the 21st century has somewhat relaxed the rigid divides in art world dogma that kept these two artists completely separate and we can now appreciate their contributions.  We can once again see what Vincent van Gogh saw and admired in Howard Pyle!

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  • Danielle, this is a wonderful commentary. And yes, part of Van Gogh’s appeal has to be the drama of his short life, which everyone seems to know at least something about even if they know nothing else about the world of art. I’ve always wondered if people after Van Gogh looked at artists at bit more as unstable characters than before? In any case, your Pyle exhibition and the Van Gogh show up the road do make a wonderful pair of exhibits, both very worth seeing.

  • Love the historical comparison. Just as cars, telephones, and planes were invented around the same time, the arts and culture were being re-invented.  It is amazing how fast a talented painter like Pyle can be forgotten and another painter discovered and rise to the top, all within a few generations.

  • Van Gogh art was first in my mind

    So I like Van Gogh painting a lot
    His art inspire me to write poems
    So my heart can’t just change
    What I really like great artist
    Van Gogh’s paintings

  • I strongly disagree that “part of Van Gogh’s appeal has to be the drama of his short life”. His work stands on its own, with no need for knowledge of his life at all. There is an urgency and earnestness in it that place it among the greatest art ever produced.