Now on View in the Howard Pyle Galleries Through November 27
June 28, 2016
The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression, and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory from which the image is never cast out… – Howard Pyle
In this tale, a fox infiltrates a poultry-yard. In the first illustration, he smiles innocently as a gosling delivers a tirade against his mentor, the imposing and annoyed-looking cock, who has made the mistake of smugly encouraging his protégé to offer some useful criticism of his character. In the second drawing, the fox makes a theatrical gesture of horror as the cock—feathers flying—attacks the disloyal gosling. The story goes on to relate how the fox obsequiously sympathizes with the cock and then lures him to bring the flock to a secluded spot in the forest where they will enjoy independence from their human captors. Pyle’s final line sums up the result: “None of them ever returned again…yet it was rumored…that the crafty fox was subsisting entirely upon the little community.”
The anthropomorphized wily fox was a staple of the European and British folklore that Pyle enjoyed as a child. Here he dresses him in a checkered suit, probably an adaptation of the traditional Harlequin and Joker costumes associated with a nimble trickster and later with the carnival barker. The cock sports an elegant frock coat and, to emphasize his cruelty, spurs. The wide-eyed, defenseless gosling “wears” only his sparse down.
The theme of self-confident conceit brought down by clever manipulation was typical in the moralizing children’s literature of the period. Pyle broadens the point by casting the plot in political terms. The cock is seduced by the flattery that he is “of superior station…and aristocratic breeding… and blood.” The fox is able to persuade him with observations that he has “the very makings of a king or even an emperor.” Thrilled with the idea that he might become a “prominent politician,” the cock blindly follows the fox to the forest.
In 1876, when he created these illustrations, the 23-year-old Pyle moved from Wilmington to New York City hoping to launch his career as an illustrator and writer. The dual ambition set him apart, as few other illustrators of the day were aiming for authorship as well as art. “The Crafty Fox,” one of several short animal fables that Pyle wrote and illustrated for the children’s magazine St. Nicholas from 1877 to 1879, would be among the first of many stories he both wrote and illustrated.
For two years, Pyle’s letters to his family reflected the uncertainty of his income in the highly competitive publishing world and his eagerness to improve his skills with further practice, both in classes at the newly founded Art Students League and by working closely with publishers’ staff artists and engravers who readied his drawings for print. By 1879, Pyle was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that he could manage his career from his native Wilmington. In his studio there, he produced over 3,000 illustrations before his death in 1911.
Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibitions