The Merry Days of Howard Pyle

He drew (and wrote about) pirates and knights, fair ladies and fairy tales. His illustrated books on Robin Hood and King Arthur are still treasured by children today.

At the Start

Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911) grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, surrounded by family and friends. His mother read to him all sorts of marvelous stories, and they had illustrations from the magazines pinned to the walls of their home.

Howard loved to draw and thought he could make a living at it. He enrolled in a nearby art school. It was dull work though. He felt his imagination was too tightly bound by the routine work. Nevertheless, he continued for several years, learning the basics of his craft. When he believed he was ready he took the train for New York City. In 1876, that was (and still is) where all the big magazine publishers are.Howard Pyles' Pirates

New York City and the Golden Age

When Howard set out for New York, America was in a reading frenzy. People gobbled up weekly magazines filled with stories and pictures. There was a huge demand for artists, and Howard got there at the right time.

For a while, he would make idea sketches that other artists would complete. Howard had lots of ideas so this worked out well. It didn't pay very much though. Still, he had fun. He took an apartment, made friends with the other illustrators, and thoroughly enjoyed being in New York City.

It occurred to Howard that if only the magazine editors could see what he was really capable of, they would give him a chance to do a thorough job on an illustration so that the finished picture would be really his.

He spent weeks working on this illustration. When he was finally satisfied with it, he took it to the editors. They loved it, and soon Howard was the principal illustrator for many stories in many magazines.

His Very Own Books

Howard Pyles' PiratesWhen he was a boy, Howard had read a lot of classic adventure stories. One that he particularly loved featured Robin Hood. The noble robber who gave to the poor was a terrific story to share, and Howard did so, providing his own beautiful illustrations. His Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was a top seller. Soon he was writing and illustrating stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He did four of those!

All the while he kept churning out illustrations for magazines. It was during this time that he decided that it was most sensible to go back to his hometown. By now most of his New York friends had moved on. Older and wiser, Howard realized that he really did enjoy small-town life and preferred to work there in solitude--at least for a while.

The Brandywine School

In 1894, Howard was invited to try his hand at teaching illustration at Drexel Institute. His classes were flooded with students, both men and women who wanted to learn their craft from the famous illustrator. There were so many that he was unable to give each the attention he wanted. This made him quite unhappy.

So he quit teaching at Drexel and brought his very best students back to his hometown.

There he continued to write and illustrate, but he also set up a remarkable art school. It had thousands of applicants and only about two dozen spots. He did not charge for his teaching. Students only had to pay for room, board, and art supplies.

When Howard Pyle chose his students, he was looking for more than the ability to draw well. He wanted students with that extra spark--students whose artistic imaginations would lead their readers farther than simple words ever could.

He chose well. From that tiny school whose summer sessions were often held in the open air of the Brandywine Valley (hence the name Brandywine School) came some of the best-loved painters and illustrators to ever grace the pages of American books and magazines: Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Jessie Wilcox Smith. These young artists joined the growing Pyle family for meals, biking trips, swimming on sweltering days, and nights of friendly conversation.

A Last Voyage

As the years went by, other artists became more popular and his work no longer paid the bills. Howard tried briefly to run the editorial department of one of the big New York magazines. He continued commuting back to Delaware part of the week to teach and draw. It didn't work out, and Howard finally did something he had avoided doing for all of his life. He went to Europe.Howard Pyles' Pirates

Howard had been afraid that the reality of Europe couldn't match his imagination. He was afraid he would lose those visions of knights in shining armor if he saw the real thing.

But with the bills piling up, he felt he had to go to look for work. Some of his friends had made good money painting murals in Europe, and he thought he might do the same.

With his family in tow, he headed to Italy. Sadly he became terribly ill while he was there and died suddenly of a kidney ailment.

He left behind his own beautiful books, many of which are still in print. But he has another legacy. Much of the work of the students he taught so carefully and generously have been cherished by book lovers for generations.

Finding Howard Pyle in the Library

Central Rappahannock Regional Library owns many of Howard Pyle's books. Click here for a complete listing.

We also have a book that tells his life story. Howard Pyle, Writer, Illustrator, Founder of the Brandywine School is a good choice for more advanced readers.

More on the Web

Howard Pyle Biography
Look here for some lovely online reproductions of his art.

Howard Pyle Online
Links to his art work online, a biography, as well as links to his illustrated Men of Iron, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, and The Wonder Clock.

The Illustrators Project: Howard Pyle
A very nice biography which includes some illustrations.

The Central Rappahannock subscribes to many online databases. Find articles on Howard Pyle in Biography Resource Center and Books & Authors. You will need a CRRL library card to use these resources.