Inside Look: Myth and Legacy in Howard Pyle’s The Flying Dutchman (1900)
February 18, 2019
Early last December, I had the opportunity to lead a focused gallery program highlighting a work of art in the Delaware Art Museum’s collection, Howard Pyle’s The Flying Dutchman (1900). A favorite of museum visitors, The Flying Dutchman represents the popular folk tale of a sea captain who is cursed to roam the seas forever. Located in the permanent collection galleries, the monumental painting commands the room as the haunting stare of the doomed captain draws our attention away from the equally beloved Marooned and The Mermaid on view nearby. As a graduate student in Art History at the University of Delaware, I loved spending time with museumgoers looking closely at this specific work. Full of drama and rich in meaning, The Flying Dutchman led to dialogue about Pyle’s legacy, and his dual roles as fine artist and illustrator.
The Flying Dutchman illustrates a popular legend about a ship captain who was sailing in the midst of a great storm off the Cape of Good Hope (in present-day South Africa). According to the legend, the captain vowed to round the Cape even if the ship had to sail until Judgment Day. Hearing this, the devil cursed the captain and his crew, condemning them to an eternity at sea. The sighting of the Flying Dutchman and his ghostly ship by the same name is believed to be a sign of danger on the high seas. Some versions of the story say that the crew may try to signal ships at sea and vessels that answer are doomed as well. Other versions, including the 1843 opera, has the captain come ashore every seven years to seek a woman who is able to break the curse.
The myth itself dates back to the 1600s, the height of the Dutch East India Company, and likely has its origins in Fata Morgana mirages. Though it is only a myth, the Flying Dutchman has held popular attention for centuries, with “sightings” reported in the early 1900s. The most recent version of this story is featured in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies (2003 – 2017).
Pyle’s painting expands on the popular narrative by conveying the emotion or drama behind the story using visual cues. Thus, while we only see a moment of the captain’s hellish experience, it haunts us. In Pyle’s work, the captain is positioned directly in the center of the composition, his arms crossed in a gesture of defiance, with the suffering crew and the rotting ship framing the scene. The painting itself is large-scale, and, as one viewer remarked, the captain’s red-rimmed eyes stare directly out at you, as if beckoning you to your doom. Another visitor stated that the painting looks “miserable and cold,” with the blue tones of rain and waves flooding the ship.
Over the course of our talks, museumgoers and I analyzed other details life the deteriorating condition of the ship on the right and the skeletal appearance of the crew in the lower right corner of the painting. Another visitor highlighted the strong perpendicular angle that is formed by the slanted deck—and the captain himself—who stands firm amidst the gale. These details convey a sense of drama and an otherworldly quality which reinforces the idea that the ship is haunted. For example, one viewer thought that the captain must be a ghost, as only a monster could stand so firmly in the middle of a storm.
Interestingly, though Pyle was a well-known illustrator of both historical and fantastical tales, The Flying Dutchman was not created to accompany any text. It is much larger than his earlier paintings and was created as an oil painting before being reproduced as a frontispiece in the December 8, 1900 issue of Collier’s Weekly magazine. Accompanied by just a caption, Pyle counted on readers’ knowledge of the folk tale to provide the context for his illustration.
Pyle’s career as an illustrator coincided with what is referred to as “The Golden Age of Illustration,” the period from approximately 1880 to 1930 when the demand for pictures led to a proliferation of illustrations in Europe and the United States. Around 1903, Pyle began to translate his abilities as a commercial illustrator into more ambitious works of fine art, including murals, which were designed to stand on their own outside of magazines.
The visitors and I wondered what could have prompted Pyle to begin creating such large-scale and mythic works at the end of his career. Was he simply tired of illustration? Or, was he concerned about his legacy as an artist beyond the ephemeral world of books and magazines? One visitor wondered if Pyle wasn’t undergoing a spiritual crisis, perhaps prompted by the death of his son Sellers in 1889. Sellers’ death led Pyle to seek refuge in the Swedenborgian religion. Pyle’s grief is visible in his fantastical work The Garden Behind the Moon. In this series of illustrations, an angel leads a young boy to a magical land beyond the moon.
With these ideas in mind, The Flying Dutchman began to take on a more poignant, and tragic, meaning to us. Whereas some might see the painting as aligned with Pyle’s other swashbuckling heroes, the cold, haunting quality of The Flying Dutchman seems to convey something much more personal. The captain’s defiance amidst the storm could be read as fear or worry about his tragic fate. Perhaps, in creating the work, Pyle saw himself as the Flying Dutchman, searching for a way out of a storm. Though Pyle’s sudden death in 1911 left this painting shrouded in mystery, this exercise in close looking yielded meaningful connections. By taking the time to look carefully at the painting, we can begin to see the barrier break down between the world of the painting and the world of the artist—between myth and legacy.
Anne S. Cross
Ph.D. Candidate in Art History
Department of Art History
University of Delaware