New Howard Pyle Illustrations Added to the Collection
September 29, 2016
The Museum recently purchased five of the 14 watercolors that Howard Pyle painted as costume designs for the 1909 Broadway play Springtime. A musical romance set in Louisiana in 1815, Springtime ran for 79 performances at New York’s Liberty Theater from October to December, 1909. The short run was explained by one commentator: “The play ended happily; the tragedy was at the box office. Critics loathed it.” That wasn’t universally true, as some critics did praise the production, while recognizing it for what it was, using descriptions such as sentimental, charming, pretty, and winsome. Out of town audiences were more accepting; the play ran in other cities after its New York closing.
The producer was Frederic Thompson, already famous for his design of Luna Park in Coney Island, the nation’s first large-scale amusement park, and of the Hippodrome, New York’s largest and most lavish theater. Springtime featured his wife Mabel Taliaferro, a leading lady of the New York stage, soon to become equally famous as a silent movie star. The authors—well-known novelists Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson—worked from ideas suggested by Thompson.
The five watercolors are extremely rare works of art, as they are part of a set of the only pieces yet discovered made by Pyle for the stage. Their existence has been known for many years, but their ownership was a mystery. The remaining nine are still not located. Much of our information about the designs has been uncovered by two Pyle specialists, Paul Preston Davis, author of the catalogue Howard Pyle—His Life, His Work (Oak Knoll Press/Delaware Art Museum, 2004), and Ian Schoenherr, illustrator and blogger with an extensive knowledge of Pyle (howard pyle.blogspot.com). I am grateful to both of them for contributing to this summary.
In 1916, Mabel Taliaferro, divorced from Frederick Thompson since 1911, informed Willard S. Morse that she was in possession of the 14 watercolors. A New York collector, Morse was also a Pyle specialist; he subsequently gave the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts (the Museum’s predecessor) over 1,000 works on paper by Pyle. Morse conveyed Taliaferro’s news to Gertrude Brincklé, Pyle’s former assistant and Secretary of the Society, with whom he would co-author the first catalogue of Pyle’s works in 1921. According to Morse, Taliaferro had told him that during her marriage the set had been displayed as a frieze in the Thompson dining room.
Morse ultimately told Brincklé that Taliaferro had sold the set to Mabel Brady Garvan and her husband Francis Patrick Garvan. He was a lawyer with political connections, whom Woodrow Wilson appointed head of the Chemical Foundation, an educational and industrial entity. In the 1930s, the Garvans donated their large collection of American artifacts, which included several works by Pyle but none of the costume designs, to Yale. Descendants of the Garvans sold the 5 watercolors in March at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, NH, where the Museum acquired them.
Pyle designed the early 19th-century era costumes in striking colors, with attention to details such as boot tassels and lacy hems, and with his usual historical exactitude. Pose and expression reflect the dramatic roles of the characters, including the demure Madeleine (2016-8), her dashing suitor Gilbert (2016-9), the villainous Raoul de Valette (2016-7), and his father the aristocratic Monsieur de Valette (2016-6). Julie (2016-10) was a minor role. Pyle evidently based the features and costumes of Madeleine and Gilbert on the couple in his painting When All the World was Young (1912-49). Completed in 1908, the painting appeared without text in Harper’s Monthly Magazine for August 1909. When All the World was Young is now in the Museum’s collection and is often on view in the Peggy H. Woolard Howard Pyle Galleries. Publicity and newspaper photos show that the costumes in the play—especially Madeleine’s white Empire-style dress that signals her upper class status—followed Pyle’s designs, with some variations, at least for the four lead characters.
Pyle’s commission and the costumes themselves elicited press notice. A New York Times reviewer, unimpressed with the sentimentality of Springtime overall, noted that “[t]he costumes designed by Howard Pyle [are] appropriate and effective.” Another commentator recognized Pyle’s stature in his observation that “Thompson had Howard Pyle design the costumes… and art editors who buy that artist’s pictures gasped when they thought how much these paintings must have cost the managers.” At Springtime’s opening, the watercolors were displayed in the theater’s lobby, which was banked with elaborate floral displays. According to the critic on The New York Sun, “oddly enough, …none of the costumes on stage looked half as beautiful as these sketches did.”
Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibition Series