The cultural influence of American author and illustrator Howard Pyle should not be underestimated. He transformed Robin Hood from a bandit to a heroic defender of the weak. He changed pirates from seafaring hoodlums to iconic historical figures.
Pyle was also one of the great American illustrators. You probably own a book that has been influenced by him in some way and remember his name when you watch any Treasure Island or Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
Born a Quaker in Wilmington, Delaware, young Pyle was more interested in doodling than traditional schoolwork. His parents astutely abandoned the idea of sending their son to college and arranged for him to study art from the age of 16 to 19. These formative years would be Pyle’s only formal artistic training, and it was from these beginnings that Pyle grew to become the man who rebranded history and taught a generation of American artists.
Pyle’s earliest published work came in the form of illustrations, short stories and poems in periodicals like Scribner’s Monthly and Harpers Weekly. Pyle’s first full length work was a highly successful interpretation the Robin Hood stories which he called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. It was the first time the ballads of Robin Hood had been collected and woven into a single narrative, but Pyle was happy to alter the original stories. While he did preserve some of the original content, he essentially re-wrote the entire set of stories in order to form a cohesive narrative and make them ideal reading for children with hero figures, true villains and righteous causes.
The most notable of his changes was to Robin himself, altering the protagonist from a selfish, murdering crook into a philanthropist who robs the rich and gives to the poor. He would only kill if someone attacked him first.
Pyle used pirates in many adventure stories. Few authentic illustrations of pirate clothing were available so he invented the flamboyant romantic garb that has become standard issue for any tale about piracy these days - Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character is 100% Pyle.
By 1900 Howard Pyle had achieved such fame that he founded his own art school - the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. He instructed the likes of Jessie Willcox Smith, Harvey Dunn, Philip R. Goodwin and the great N.C. Wyeth, and it became known as the Brandywine School style of illustration. Today you can see much of Pyle’s work at the Delaware Art Museum where much of his work, as well that of his students, is collected.
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