Pirates on the Brandywine I

Today we’ll begin a two-part series that explores pirates and other American illustrations from museums in the Brandywine River Valley. There is, of course, much more at each museum than what I will cover—a luminous George Inness, for example (Early Autumn, Montclair)—but if we are to be honest, my primary purpose for visiting these museums was to see the pirate paintings.

“Arr yawl” ready to “sea” some, too? (Forgive me for resurrecting that salty pun from the prior post.) Let’s jump in.

Voici le Brandywine.

Now jump! (Just kidding.)

All photographs in this post were taken by me.

Illustrations by Howard Pyle

First I visited the Delaware Art Museum. Originally the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, the museum was created to preserve the works and legacy of Howard Pyle, a Wilmington native and leading American illustrator. Over time, the collection expanded to include much art connected to the area, Pre-Raphaelite art, and American illustration.

Pyle taught locally and eventually opened his own art school. He instructed a generation of American artists and illustrators, known as the Brandywine School, among them Frank Schoonover and N. C. Wyeth. About half of his students were women. Pyle also wrote and produced books, such as The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.

His pirate illustrations, among others, garnered significant attention, and it is to these that society’s romanticized vision of pirates is largely indebted. One could rather safely say the look of every popular buccaneer from Captain Blood to Captain Jack was influenced, directly or indirectly, by Pyle’s paintings. Pyle combined historical clothing articles, props, and other objects to create exotic but realistic figures such as this fellow.

The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow from Pyle’s “The Fate of a Treasure Town”  

I have seen this painting many times, but not until recently did it occur to me that this painting could also have influenced the design (again, directly or indirectly) of Red-haired Shanks from the long-running pirate manga One Piece. 26 years and still going!(!!) I can hardly imagine plotting & drawing the same story for that long.

Images compiled from One Piece, vol. 1, created by Eiichirō Oda.

Obviously this is not colorized, but his sash is red like the picturesque fellow’s.

Here are some lessons from Pyle:

On selecting what of the story to illustrate: “In painting we can only picture the supreme moment, leaving to the imagination what precedes and follows.”

He also had much to say on creating effective & engaging compositions. Space, color, and what I would call dynamic lines all can draw attention to key elements. Of space in particular, he advised not to crowd an image: “They will never shoot you for what you leave out of a picture.”

I think An Attack on a Galleon is a good example of some of these principles.

There are details, but nothing superfluous. Note the layered placement of the ships on two different waves/two different parts of the painting ground/picture plane and their size difference. These heighten the drama. I enjoy the rich colors.

Another case of influence: compare Galleon to the opening of Disney’s Treasure Planet.

With painting as with writing, revision is useful. Both these paintings are titled Marooned. Both are excellent (despite the glare on the book page on the first), but the second one is more striking and conveys the concept even better than the first.

The first painting seems more focused on the buccaneer, and the second on the concept overall. By changing the perspective, Pyle heightens the sense of isolation and barrenness. He reduces the horizon line to just a spit of wave and the water line to a little sea foam receding in the corner. There’s no offing to scan for ships or look out upon with a speck of hope. Everything is suspended at that moment, like there is nothing beyond that stretch of sand and the desolation of isolation.

Here’s a close-up.

Pyle spoke against crowding an image, but that does not mean he did not paint crowds. Here, a different kind of piracy may well have been afoot: The Rush from the New York Stock Exchange on September 18, 1873, from “A History of the Last Quarter Century.”  

Other fun from the visit

Cartoonist Al Capp’s (Li’l Abner) description of modern art: “A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” Ha. There are exceptions, but that covers a lot!

In the Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil’s journey begins with a descent into hell.

Or NYC. This is Dante & Virgil in Union Square by Isabel Bishop.  

Outfitting the C. [Charles] W. Morgan by Clifford Warren Ashley for his book Yankee Whaler.

This was a pleasure to see. I spent a significant part of childhood in Mystic, Connecticut, and I have walked the decks of the Morgan many times at Mystic Seaport. 

So I don’t go overboard with sharing more artwork, that’s all for today. Part two will cover my trip to the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Art Selected for 2024 Calendar

One of my paintings has been selected for inclusion in Principia’s 2024 calendar and annual series of alumni art cards. The calendar’s theme is light. In January, an online exhibit of all the art will open, and I will share the web link when it is ready.

For 2021, my workplace created an inspirational calendar that also had light as the theme. Since the audiences overlap and I had two pieces in the earlier calendar, I had to think a little about what to submit this time to avoid duplication.

The selected art is actually not a final piece, so I was mildly surprised it made the cut. It is an oil sketch to explore ideas and techniques, a stepping stone to an eventual polished work. Here is Color Study, Lanterns, Narita. (An unpretentious, factual title, to be sure. Such it is with studies.)

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It draws from my trip to Japan in 2019. The last night, one of my travelling companions and I took the train from Akihabara to Narita. The evening was quiet and rainy. On the walk to the hotel, we passed some little shops and restaurants, and one in particular caught my eye. Lit colored lanterns and fish nets hung over the entrance. There was something attractively atmospheric, or atmospherically attractive, about it. My hope is that when I work on the polished version, I can recreate some of the mood.

That’s all for today’s news. If you missed my last post, please have a look–my newest book, A Psalm for When I Wander is available! (The first link is to the announcement & the second to the book page.)

Next time, I have what I hope will be a fun treat, no tricks. (It was not intended for Halloween but will complement it given the subject matter.) I will share highlights from recent visits to Delaware Valley museums noted for their collections of American art and illustration, especially Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, both of whom gained some renown for painting boatloads of buccaneers. “Yawl sea” where this is headed? It will be all hands on deck for the seaworthy special entry Pirates on the Brandywine!

Art Zoo

Once Handmade Hopewell (HH) finished, I could spend more time working on art again instead of working on presenting art. Here are recent animal paintings.

This sea turtle was “finished” a few weeks ago, after HH. To give a sense of scale, it is leaning against a door.

At the start, there were some energetic, sketchy elements I quite liked, eg., around the flippers, but most of those areas ended up getting more refined or painted over. Looking at it now, I wish I had preserved more of them. Even so, the painting satisfied my need to do something artistic besides re-painting tulips and working on my video for HH, and I am generally content with it.

The Wednesday after HH, I got a call from neighbors who asked whether I were willing & able to come up with something artistic & humorous that night to mail Thursday morning to a couple getting married that Friday or Saturday. Although these wedding pandas are not punny of themselves, my neighbors were encouraged to send the happy couple a note congratulating them on going forward with their wedding during the panda-demic.

There are also some bird paintings, but I will save them for another time.

I hope you enjoyed today’s trip to the zoo.

2020 Show Updates

Both shows in which I was scheduled to participate in the next few weeks have been postponed or modified. Princeton’s 50th Communiversity has been rescheduled to Sunday, Sunday, October 11. Handmade Hopewell’s street fair has been cancelled; however, there will be a virtual fair the weekend of the original show (May 3rd). The plan is that there will be a map of what the street fair would have looked like, and visitors (to the website) can click on each booth and see a short video created by each participating studio. I will post the link closer to the date the fair goes live.

In the meantime, please enjoy this painting inspired by my trip to Hawaii in September. Also, happy Easter (yesterday)!