Howard Pyle Murals
April 15, 2015
Over the last two and a half years, conservator Mark Bockrath of Barbara A. Buckley Associates has painstakingly cleaned and conserved the first mural paintings completed by Howard Pyle between 1903 and 1907. This summer the complete set of nine mural panels painted by Howard Pyle for the drawing room of his home at 907 Delaware Avenue in Wilmintgon will be semi-permanently installed in one of the Vinton illustration galleries on the second floor of the Museum. The complete set of murals has not been on public view since the 1930s.
Pyle began work on the murals in 1903. His interest in mural painting mirrored a growing national trend for the decoration of public buildings. Within a few years, he chose to devote himself entirely to this genre, traveling to Florence to study Renaissance examples. These panels represent Pyle’s earliest attempt in this kind of painting, and were almost surely executed in the hope of attracting work in this new arena. In this he was successful, receiving a commission to decorate the Minnesota State Capital building in 1905, with subsequent commissions for murals at the Essex County Court House, Newark, and Hudson County Court House, Jersey City.
The subject of this particular mural program is one that was near and dear to Pyle’s heart. Two large panels titled the Genius of Art and the Genius of Literature bear witness to Pyle’s lifetime endeavor as an illustrator to bring the written word to life in imagery. In 1902 Pyle wrote, “For ages past the Genius of Literature and the Genius of Art have walked together hand in hand. For the Goddess of Letters is blind and only she of Art can lend her sight.” In the first panel, the personification of Art, a female figure, clad in semi-transparent draperies and attended by two peacocks, leads a procession of admiring followers. As described by Pyle, she “holds a mirror to nature.” The scene is one of gay revelry, filled with lively movement and bright color. The second of the two large panels depicts a somberly garbed “Literature,” playing a classical lyre, while before her a group of recumbent figures, each with downward (unseeing) gaze, listen attentively.
The history of the murals after Pyle’s death was circuitous. The murals remained in the Delaware Avenue home for several years, where they were damaged by fire in 1914. Within the ensuing decade, the murals were given to the nascent Wilmington Society of Fine Art. In 1923, they were removed from the walls of the Delaware Avenue home in a much publicized process by Professor Pasquale Farina of Philadelphia and installed in “an exact replica” of Pyle’s drawing room in the new Wilmington Public Library on Rodney Square.
Two of the panels were included in the retrospective exhibition of Pyle’s work held here at the Museum in 2011-12. Since that time, we have been planning the current installation. In preparation, Mark Bockrath has consolidated and cleaned each of the nine panels in preparation for the present display. The two photographs above illustrate before and after treatment of the Genius of Music.
The Museum is most grateful to the Marmot Foundation for funding this extensive conservation project. In addition, the installation of the murals has been generously supported by the Starrett Foundation.
Chief Curator, and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection