Friday, September 16, 2005


Our one side trip out of D.C. last week was up to a little town called Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. The reason for this was a long-held desire of mine to visit the Brandywine River Museum.

Backstory: Back when I was a Senior in High School, I was given a biography project to do. I cannot remember the exact details of how long it was, but I do remember that it was the most in-depth, researched paper I had been given to do up until that point. The person I chose was Howard Pyle, thought of by many to be the "Father of American Illustration". I studied his life and works, which included The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Story of King Arthur and his Knights (the first book of his I bought and the inspiration for choosing his as my subject). I got an "A" on that paper, but more important was my increased admiration for Pyle's work.

Pyle opened an art school in Wilmington, Delaware that attracted artists who would become some of the most prolific of their time. Included among these were Jessie Willcox Smith, Harvey Dunn, Percy Ivory, and Frank Schoonover. Most prominent were Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth; two men who followed in Pyle's tradition of illustrations for adventure stories such as The Arabian Nights (Parrish) and Treasure Island (Wyeth). His influence can be seen in their works, which have a quality about them that speaks to the little kid in all of us.

In terms of film, Pyle's influence can also be felt. Though the script of The Adventures of Robin Hood is not take from Pyle's book, The visuals are. One look at the scene where Friar Tuck carries Robin across the river and comparing it to Pyle's original illustration conveys that. His innate sense of adventure that pours from his books is very much in line with the acrobatics of Errol Flynn. Pyle's text was actually used just once for the basis of a film: The Black Shield of Falworth starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Hopefully, this will soon see the light of day on DVD.

All of those men I mentioned above, including Pyle, are represented at the Brandywine River Museum. It was the first time I had ever seen any of their works in person, so it was a great thrill. In their gift shop, I picked up two prints that were remarkably inexpensive. The first is a N.C. Wyeth print "It hung upon a thorn, and there he blew three deadly notes" that is more two dimensional and staid than his other more action-packed works, but is still very nice. The other is a Howard Pyle print, but not medieval in theme (as I couldn't find one available). Instead, it is one of his last works entitled "DuPont Powder Wagon Carrying Powder to Commodore Perry in 1813". As much as I wanted one of his more adventurous pieces, I'm liking the one I got more and more. There is such a reality to his work that I sense far more than in other artists. I'm glad to now own a piece of it.

Sidenote: Several years ago, I came across a series of those children's books which take classic literature, shorten it, and include simple illustrations on every other page to communicate the story. Among them was Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood with someone else's illustrations but with Pyle's text. Not to besmirch Pyle's writing ability, because he was able to transport readers by word as well as picture, but doing a version of his works with text and without pictures is like doing a micro-budget stage version of The Matrix.

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