In the summer of 2009 I had the privilege of visiting the studio that Howard Pyle, widely regarded as the father of American illustration, built and worked in. In 1883 Pyle bought a lot on Franklin Street in Wilmington Delaware and constructed what would become a Mecca of sorts for artists wishing to hone their skills under the tutelage of Pyle.
Acclaimed artists that studied in the shadow of Pyle include N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Harvey Dunn and Jessie Wilcox Smith. During my cross country trip to Hartford to attend my final summer MFA session, Ron Spears and I arrived unannounced, but were graciously given a tour by current caretaker and occupant, artist Carolyn Anderson.
Stepping into the Pyle studio , one could sense the history and imagine the many late night lectures and critiques that took place there and in the adjoining studio space that Pyle constructed to accommodate his top students. Pyle was a consummate craftsman and teacher with a penchant for storytelling and hyperbole. On more than one occasion, Pyle stressed the importance of getting inside your work, breathing life into it. “When I was painting this picture of a battle'” he once told a class of students, referring to his painting The Battle of Nashville, ” I felt the reality so vividly that I occasionally had to go to the door of the studio and breathe fresh air to clear my lungs of powder and smoke!”
Student Frank Schoonover once recalled visiting the master one evening in which he was painting “The Battle of Bunker Hill”. The painting seemed nearly finished but when he and Stanley Arthurs returned the next day, they were shocked to see a new canvas with a different composition on the easel. He asked what had happened and Pyle replied that he had taken the canvas to the boiler room and burned it because he “couldn’t smell the smoke”. He then reinforced that “You have to smell the smoke.” Good advice to this day. If you happen to be in the Wilmington area, swing by the Pyle Studio on Franklin Street between Thirteenth Street and Delaware Avenue. Then go to the Delaware Art Museum and see the largest public collection of Pyle work in existence. You won’t be disappointed.
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