Acquired black and white work by Howard Pyle and engraved woodblock created by J. P. Davis

January 13, 2014

The Museum recently acquired this black and white work by Howard Pyle and the engraved woodblock created by J. P. Davis for its reproduction in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

The gouache is one of three that Pyle created for this article about the coffee houses of New York City, places of political discourse in the late 18th century. Author John Austin Stevens belonged to a class of writer that was diminishing in the 1880s as historians turned increasingly to research rather than to literary models for the writing of history. Primarily a businessman, Stevens developed a deep knowledge of American history, which he wrote about in discursive essays that conveyed historical insight as well as local color and character. Pyle captured this spirit in a scene outside a coffee house, focusing not just on the central plot but also on evocative details of the surroundings, and expressions and gestures of players in the drama. The illustration depicts a historical episode of 1776, when Theophylact Bache, a British-born American trader, emerges from the Merchant’s Coffee House, whose patrons favored the British during the Revolutionary period.  He finds a mob harassing the American General Alexander Graydon, who was under British detention in the city. Bache leans in between the General (with cane) and an accuser to interrupt up the assault. Stevens presents this as one example of increasing sympathy toward the Revolution.

Theophylact Bache saving Graydon from the Mob in 1776, for “Old New York Coffee Houses,” by John Austin Stevens, in  Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1882
Howard Pyle (1853-1911)
Ink, ink wash and gouache on paper, 8 5/8 x 12 inches
Gayle and Alene Hoskins Endowment Fund
DAM 2012-3

The event is not described in any detail by Stevens; it is an example of Pyle’s approach, as reflected in his 1896 letter to author S. Weir Mitchell:

I do not feel that my ability in picture-making lies in illustrating stories. In such work I am hampered and confined by the text, and my talent (such as it is) can have no room in which to play. It has always seemed to me to be better to choose for an illustration some point, if possible, not mentioned directly in the text but very descriptive of the text.

Pyle invented the telling details that abound in the illustration. A scrawled effigy of a hanged George Washington on the post at left reveals that the Merchant’s Coffee House is a Royalist stronghold. The boy in the foreground with his basket recalls the still-countrified nature of the city. Pyle also included figures in the scene that do not appear in the narrative until a few years later, probably the better to fill out the picturesque scenario: the men in miters at the right edge of the crowd are members of the Ancient York Masons, who held a festival at the coffee-house in 1781.

The profiles and forward-facing figures contribute to the viewer’s sense of participation. Bache’s petitioning posture and serious expression contrast with Graydon’s accusers’ aggressive demeanor. The General—his vulnerability emphasized by his cane—maintains a judiciously neutral expression.

The painting is an important addition to the collection, as it is an early example of Pyle’s American history illustration in black and white, an area not deeply represented in the Museum’s holdings.

Wood engraving was the primary means of reproduction until photographic techniques began to replace it within the decade following this publication.  J. P. Davis was a member of the Society of American Wood Engravers and a prize-winner at international exhibitions. Woodblocks from the period are rare. Davis’ is the first to enter the Museum’s collection.

The painting will be on view in the Peggy H. Woolard Howard Pyle Galleries from August 15th through mid-November, 2012.

Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Collections / Curator of Illustration

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