Stories from PA History
Fine Arts
Fine Arts
Chapter Two: Exiles, Photographers, and Illustrators: Pennsylvania Art in the Late Nineteenth Century

Beautiful oil on canvas profile portrait of Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen in formal dress.
Henry Clay and Helen Frick, by Edmund Charles Tarbell, c. 1910.
One of the strangest aspects of Pennsylvania's history is that many of the major figures associated with the Commonwealth, it seems, left as soon as they could. William Penn spent only four of his seventy-six years in the province named for his father (not for him). Benjamin Franklin arrived from Boston in 1723, but at age fifty-three went to England, where he spent fifteen of the next seventeen years before returning home in 1775, only to leave for France in 1778 and return in 1785, aged seventy-nine, to spend the last five years of his life.

Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Charles M. Schwab, the men most associated with the United States Steel industry, built mansions in New York City after they had mined and forged Pennsylvania's wealth. John D. Rockefeller, the man who gained the most from the world's first oil boom in Western Pennsylvania, never lived in Pennsylvania at all: when the people of Cleveland, Ohio, passed a tax on individuals (or rather, the individual) making more than ten million dollars a year, he joined the steel magnates in New York City.

Oil painting of an older gentleman, with his young student sitting on his lap, while he teaches a lesson on the banjo.
The Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893.
Many Pennsylvania artists, too, exploited their home state for their training and subject matter, only to leave for other climes. markerBenjamin West set the precedent; if Americans know him for "William Penn's Treaty," in England, where he lived the last fifty-seven years of his life, he made his reputation with the "Death of General Wolfe" and became historical painter to King George III. In the nineteenth century, markerJohn James Audubon and markerGeorge Catlin, the new nation's foremost painters of birds and Native Americans, respectively, went overseas to sell their work when the Philadelphia art community rejected them. markerMary Cassatt of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, whose father made his fortune with the Pennsylvania Railroad, lived most of her eighty-two-year life in France, as did markerHenry Ossawa Tanner, the United States" first major black artist, who left Philadelphia in 1891 and remained in France until his death in 1939.

If until the Civil War, Pennsylvania art - like Pennsylvania itself -
Daguerreotype of Martin Hans Boye.
Martin Hans Boye, by Robert Cornelius, 1841.
primarily represented American nationalism, it was equally appropriate that just as nineteenth-century Pennsylvania led the United States in industrial production, the Commonwealth also led the United States in pioneering two technologically progressive art forms: photography and illustration.

To markerRobert Cornelius, and the earliest photographers who worked during the 1840s, photography was primarily a way of making more accurate and life-like portraits or images. They did not even consider their work as art, and most of them simply took a few pictures before resuming their regular occupations. But as professional photography flourished - it was given a huge boost by the Civil War as pictures of soldiers and battlefields were much in demand - painters abandoned their quest for technical accuracy, since they could never hope to duplicate the precision of a photograph.

Somewhat paradoxically, the late nineteenth-century school of painting that resulted was called "Realism," both because it tried to deal realistically with the sometimes unpleasant subjects of everyday life - everything from medical operations to the plight of the poor - and because its practitioners sought to convey the power or essence of a personality or scene rather than to get all the details right.

Progressive image. Eakins has dissected a split second or two of time. He has taken a single pole-vault of a man in motion and broken down this fleeting motion into nine equal intervals
Motion Study , by Thomas Eakins, 1885.
Photography was an important second line of work for markerThomas Eakins, the Pennsylvanian whom many critics have considered America's greatest painter. His collaboration with Englishman Eadweard Muybridge in the 1880s took photography beyond the literal and paved the way both for film and its emergence as an art form in its own right. Working together at the University of Pennsylvania, they created the illusion of motion by using several cameras timed to shoot the subject rapidly, and employed electromagnets to enable shutters to snap more quickly. Muybridge thus showed people dancing, horses trotting (he demonstrated all four of a horse's feet could leave the ground at once), and birds flying. In 1887, he published more than 100,000 images in eleven volumes entitled Animal Locomotion: An Electro Photographic Investigation of the Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements, 1872-1885. Eakins, for his part, provided the local support and prestige that Muybridge required and took similar photographs of his own to study the muscular structure of human beings.

After Eakins was forced to resign from the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886 for his inappropriate use of nude models and Muybridge, probably as a consequence, moved to San Francisco the following year, Philadelphia lost its lead in photographic innovation. Alfred Stieglitz's "Succession" Movement in New York became the focus American photography. Stieglitz began to integrate photographic techniques with abstract art, using different exposures and angles to create a variety of effects. Pennsylvania's major claim to fame here lies with markerAaron Siskind, a New Yorker who spent several years photographing farms in Bucks County.

Pennsylvania illustrators, too, have been in the forefront of their field since before Benjamin Franklin made his famous "Join or Die" cartoon in 1754, urging the American colonies to unite against the French in Canada. The covers of American almanacs, such as the one Philadelphia printer Christopher Saur used in 1744 to show peaceful Germans disembarking under a rainbow (God's promise to humanity) in a welcoming Pennsylvania shows how colonial printers used illustrations to convey their messages even to those who could not read.

Beautiful watercolor on paper of butterflies and flowers, against a blue background.
Still Life with Flowers and Insects by Titian Ramsay Peale, 1879.
America's first political cartoons were by Pennsylvanians, who made fun of the Quaker-dominated government and their ally Franklin for their failure to defend the western frontier against the Indians in the mid-1760s. In the decades following American independence, Pennsylvania illustrators included naturalists William Bartram and Alexander Wilson, who traveled throughout America sketching animals, birds, and plants, and Charles Willson Peale's son, Titian Ramsey Peale (1800-1885), whose exquisite drawings of insects were a major spur to the beginnings of entomology in America. John James Audubon and George Catlin, too, executed their paintings of birds and Native Americans primarily to produce illustrations for portfolios dedicated to these subjects.

The Golden Age of American illustration, however, came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Austin Abbey, Joseph Pennell, Katharine Pyle, and markerBen Austrian were among the many Pennsylvanians whose works circulated around the globe via illustrated magazines such as Leslie's, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly. These could be printed economically and mailed to hundreds of thousands of readers.

Before the twentieth century photographs had to be posed and their quality depended on too many unpredictable factors (the weather, chemicals, equipment, accidental movements). So newspapers, like the weeklies and monthly magazines, hired some of the best artists of the day to illustrate their stories. Books, too, sold better if illustrated. Illustrators, unlike photographers (at that time), could more easily emphasize the heroic, or unpleasant, qualities of public figures and call attention to particular buildings or events taking place in larger scenes.

Bandaged and ragged soldiers carry a tattered American flag, a drum, and rifles as they advance forward upon the direction of their commander.
The Nation Makers, by Howard Pyle, 1903.
One of the greatest and most influential of these illustrators, and still one of America's most beloved, was Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Vincent Van Gogh credited Pyle's sketches for "Old Time Life in a Quaker Town" that appeared in Harpers Monthly (July 1881) as an inspiration for his own work: "wonderful sketches, which strike me dumb with admiration. . . . I am full of new pleasure, because I have new hope of making things myself that have soul in them." Pyle contributed more than 3000 illustrations for magazines and provided the heroic, idealized pictures for the editions of Robin Hood and King Arthur that have been most familiar to Americans throughout the twentieth century. Equally important, Pyle also taught a generation of American illustrators, including muralist markerViolet Oakley. A resident of Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle was an inspiring teacher who accepted any talented student free of charge at his house and the summer studio he opened in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1898, which he kept until 1903.

Several years after Pyle's death, the Chadds Ford site was taken over by his pupil and most worthy successor, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945). At Pyle's urging, the young Wyeth executed numerous illustrations of the American West, but his greatest fame came from his drawings that accompanied Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Despite fame and fortune, however, a career as an "illustrator" troubled even Wyeth, for critics and the public failed to regard it as "serious" art. He wrote his mother "I want to be able to paint a picture that is as far from the realm of illustration as black is from white."

Beginning in 1908, although he continued to illustrate magazines, advertisements, and books in his usual dramatic style, Wyeth began privately to concentrate more on the tranquil landscape of the Brandywine Valley, a pattern followed by his son Andrew (b. 1917), daughters Henriette (1907-1997), Carolyn (1909-1884), and grandson Jamie (b. 1946). Many of the family's works now reside in the Brandywine River Museum, the old mill at Chadds Ford where Pyle had once had his studio.

Oil on canvas of a Sea Captain, standing on a cliff and holding a brass telescope
Captain Bill Bones, by N.C. Wyeth, 1911.
Much of the Wyeths' and Pyle's work reflects their admiration for supposedly simpler, more beautiful, and more heroic time periods. The Middle Ages and the Revolutionary War for Pyle, and the pastoral fields of Pennsylvania for Wyeth were places to escape an ugly industrial world shunned in their personal lives even by those who profited the most. Similarly, the mansion, and pottery and tile works built by markerHenry Chapman Mercer at Doylestown used the latest concrete materials, but were medieval and early Spanish Southwest in architectural style.

markerHenry Clay Frick and other Pennsylvania industrialists also used their great wealth to collect masterpieces from medieval and early modern Europe. And the subjects for which Pennsylvania's great expatriate artists were famous - the expressive mothers and children of Mary Cassatt, the biblical of Henry Ossawa Tanner - also represented an escape rather than an encounter with modernity. In the twentieth century, however, Pennsylvania artists, like the state itself, would be forced to confront the blight that accompanied the blessing of industrialization.
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