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A history-themed painting by Howard Pyle, ‘Death of Montcalm’, achieved $77,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023. Leading French troops against the British in Quebec, General Montcalm was fatally wounded by a musket and died in September 1759. Image courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Howard Pyle’s illustrations brought the drama

NEW YORK – Long before television and movies, magazines provided entertainment and a welcome escape from reality. Appearing on the pages of magazines such as Harper’s Monthly and Collier’s, Howard Pyle’s illustrations of colorful characters transformed adventure stories, making them cinematic decades before movies existed.

“The broad appeal of Howard Pyle’s work is undeniable. Pyle mastered the execution of what he called the ‘supreme moment,’ or the exact point of tension in a scene, emphasizing anticipation and suspense,” said Skye Lacerte, an illustration art specialist at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City. “These supreme moments represent the kind of drama that is appealing to collectors. They allow the reader to experience a thrill without giving away the next part of the story.”

Howard Pyle’s flair for storytelling is on full display in this painting, published in 1912 in Harper’s Monthly and titled ‘It was a Comrade from His Own Regiment’. It brought $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.
Howard Pyle’s flair for storytelling is on full display in this painting, published in 1912 in Harper’s Monthly and titled ‘It was a Comrade from His Own Regiment’. It brought $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Keeping effective storytelling as his focus, Pyle (1853-1911) created works such as the oil on canvas published in 1912 in Harper’s Monthly titled It was a Comrade from His Own Regiment. It sold for $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Swann Auction Galleries. Lacerte said this painting “recounts the moment a door is burst open by a booted foot, startling the Civil War soldier inside. The intruder stands in the doorway, in shadow from the light outside, physically blocking the injured soldier’s escape. His hand is poised on a gun, depicting the brief moment before an intense confrontation.”

‘Meeting of Captain Tollemache and Captain Pennington at the New York Arms’, rendered by Howard Pyle for an 1890 issue of Harper’s Monthly, went out at $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.
‘Meeting of Captain Tollemache and Captain Pennington at the New York Arms’, rendered by Howard Pyle for an 1890 issue of Harper’s Monthly, went out at $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

Collectors are also drawn to Pyle’s accurate portrayals of his subjects, which were the products of his extensive research of historic manuscripts, books, and European art. He was a gifted interpreter of American history, especially of cultural highlights and political clashes. For an 1890 issue of Harper’s Monthly, he referenced a famous 1777 tavern duel in Meeting of Captain Tollemache and Captain Pennington at the New York Arms, which secured $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020 at Swann Auction Galleries. Lacerte explained how the picture deftly captures the immediate aftermath of a duel: “To keep the viewer engaged with the suspense of the story, Pyle concentrates on the men’s expressions and orientation. The room is sparse and fades into an ambiguous background – the spatial logic of the room is unimportant.”

A riveting closeup on Howard Pyle’s ‘Meeting of Captain Tollemache and Captain Pennington at the New York Arms’, which earned $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.
A riveting closeup on Howard Pyle’s ‘Meeting of Captain Tollemache and Captain Pennington at the New York Arms’, which earned $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2020. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

The genius of Pyle’s illustrations is that they give exactly the right amount of detail, just enough to allow viewers to finish the story in the way they like best. “When you look at his work, it’s as if you are looking at a movie on pause. You don’t know what’s going on,” said Aviva Lehmann, senior vice president of American art at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. To prove her point, Lehmann discussed his Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne, Pictures from Thackeray, which was originally published in Harper’s Monthly and attained $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at her auction house. “There’s this tension of what happened right before this scene or what’s about to happen. That sense of mystery – almost a feeling of ‘choose your own adventure’ for any viewer standing in front of it – is really what excites people. It’s that sense of immediacy before something major. Pyle was really able to capture that moment.”

Howard Pyle’s ‘Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne, Pictures from Thackeray’ made $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Howard Pyle’s ‘Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne, Pictures from Thackeray’ made $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Another fine example of his mastery of this vital skill was published in Harper’s Monthly in 1903 and dubbed Twas A Strange Tale She Had Ended, The Castle of Content, which sold for $42,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Heritage Auctions. A jester, dressed in red and holding a tricorn hat, sits on the bed of a sleeping woman, who appears sickly. Is he a messenger of Death, simply paying respects or … what, exactly? “It’s not the most uplifting scene, and certainly not as dynamic as a work you would expect by Harvey Dunn or an NC Wyeth. But because it’s a Pyle, it’s rare and important. This drove up the price,” Lehmann said.

Created for Harper’s Monthly for an August 1903 issue, Howard Pyle’s ‘Twas A Strange Tale She Had Ended, The Castle of Content’ realized $42,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Created for Harper’s Monthly for an August 1903 issue, Howard Pyle’s ‘Twas A Strange Tale She Had Ended, The Castle of Content’ realized $42,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

When choice works by Pyle reach the auction block, bidders snap to attention. His jaunty Captain Keitt, an image of swashbuckling pirates, set an auction record in 2004 at Sotheby’s when it commanded slightly more than $700,000. But he is regarded as a driving spirit of the Golden Age of Illustration, which is a broader market in and of itself. Pyle’s legacy is twofold, spanning his role as an artist and his role as a teacher. He taught at an art colony he established in the Brandywine Valley; at Drexel University; and also at the Art Students League. Some of his most famous students were Frank Schoonover, Jessie Willcox Smith, and the aforementioned NC Wyeth.

“He has sort of a cult following, and any major collector almost looks at Howard Pyle as a prerequisite. If you’re going to be a serious collector of the Golden Age of Illustration, you’ve got to have a Pyle,” Lehmann said. “Nobody painted quite like Pyle. He was an incredible illustrator.”

Detail from Howard Pyle’s ‘Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne, Pictures from Thackeray,’ which sold for $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Detail from Howard Pyle’s ‘Becky Sharp and Lord Steyne, Pictures from Thackeray,’ which sold for $77,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The scarcity of Pyle’s artworks, coupled with the artist’s importance, has consistently propelled demand and prompted frenzies when choice pieces emerge. This was demonstrated by his painting Death of Montcalm, which appeared at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in October 2023 with a $5,000-$8,000 and ultimately claimed $77,000 plus the buyer’s premium. “You look at what comes up from Howard Pyle in relation to JC Leyendecker or Norman Rockwell, and they were much more prolific. When a great Howard Pyle comes up for sale, people sort of go crazy,” Lehmann said. Lacerte added that the most coveted Pyle paintings are those that capture the heightened emotion of a scene while paying strict attention to historical accuracy.

Detail of Howard Pyle’s ‘Death of Montcalm’, which achieved $77,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023 against an estimate of $5,000-$8,000. Image courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.
Detail of Howard Pyle’s ‘Death of Montcalm’, which achieved $77,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2023 against an estimate of $5,000-$8,000. Image courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Regardless, new collectors and those without deep pockets can still acquire a good work by Pyle. A smallish oil on panel of his, Trumpeter Near Castle, measuring 6 by 11 ½in, brought $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Sloans & Kenyon in September 2023.

Howard Pyle’s oil painting ‘Trumpeter Near Castle’ outperformed its modest $2,500-$3,500 to reach $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2023. Image courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon and LiveAuctioneers.
Howard Pyle’s oil painting ‘Trumpeter Near Castle’ outperformed its modest $2,500-$3,500 to reach $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2023. Image courtesy of Sloans & Kenyon and LiveAuctioneers.

Illustration collectors gravitate to Pyle’s works for their dramatic storytelling and compelling characters. “Pyle’s characters have become archetypes in Americans’ collective consciousness. From Captain Jack Sparrow to Thomas Jefferson, Pyle’s depictions have shaped the most iconic character representations of the past 150 years,” Lacerte said. “His work is a powerful representation of American life that is just as captivating today as it was 100 years ago.” Pyle’s visions might reflect their time and place and the obsessions of their specific magazine audiences, but they live on, gracing the walls of those who are in thrall to his illustrations.