Recent Research in American Illustration
February 5, 2017
Since its founding in 1912 with 132 works by Howard Pyle purchased from his widow Anne Poole Pyle, the Delaware Art Museum has become a primary repository for works of American illustration from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. So, members of the public might assume that we acquired our current collection of approximately 4,000 illustrations continuously throughout our 114-year history. However, while the Museum did continue to collect Pyle’s work during its first half-century, amassing close to 90% of its current Pyle holdings by 1956, most works by other illustrators did not enter the collection in quantity until the 1970s and forward.
Several factors converged in the last decades of the 20th century to make illustrations newly available. One of the most important was the rise of academic scholarship dedicated to popular culture. Such studies challenged the distinction between so-called high culture and low (or mass-produced) culture, and turned attention to the profound influence of the illustrated press on American life. This provided a new motivation for researchers, dealers, and artists’ descendants to bring illustration art from private hands onto the market and into museums as gifts. The large increase in the donation of illustrations, as well as of works for our other collections, in those years often made full cataloguing impractical, given the Museum’s limited resources.
Since 2013, multi-year grants from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and from the Welfare Foundation have allowed us to employ staff to inventory and photograph more than
three quarters of the Museum’s full collection of 12,000 works. Earlier inventories did not include updated images suitable for online viewing. Our aim is to make our entire holdings accessible online. This goal is well within reach: approximately 77% of our works of are now available on our website.
Thanks to this project and to the ever-increasing digitization of books and magazines, I have been able to study and display many illustrations that have never been thoroughly assessed. Two entertaining examples are now on view in the Brock J. Vinton Galleries.
Isaac Taber—whose varied career included mining, ranching, dentistry, and photography—illustrated his own article describing how ships navigate through weather and obstructions by sounding their whistles in various ways. Dewey’s Day on September 29, 1899, honored Admiral George Dewey, who commanded a major engagement of the Spanish–American War, after which the United States took full possession of the Philippines. Taber explains how the celebratory naval flotilla and smaller civilian boats greeted one another with their individual welcoming “toots of a whistle” as they sailed through New York Bay and up the Hudson River. Clouds from the ships’ steam whistles suggest their individual sounds, from “shrill soprano… to deepest rumbling bass.” Taber conveys an array of sailors’ poses and actions with strokes of white in an almost monochrome scene. Wind-whipped flags indicate a breeze that buffets the small boat in the lower right but not the sturdy military ships. The skyline is visible through an atmospheric haze as are the most distant ships in the procession. An aerial viewpoint suggests a viewer’s high perch over the water.
Taber’s illustration conformed to the editorial policy of St. Nicholas, the leading children’s magazine of the period, which stated that two of its goals were to cultivate “an appreciation of fine pictorial art” and to foster “a love of country.”
This novel is set in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1903. The narrator tells how—while hunting for hidden pirate gold—he meets a mysterious young woman named Calypso (seen here with him), an event which leads to mistaken identities and other exploits before the treasure is discovered and he marries her. In this scene illustrating the final chapter, the couple—still somewhat hesitant—is about to declare their love for each other. John Scott Williams creates a shadowy, intimate enclosure for the encounter, surrounded by dense foliage, a dark doorway, and a stone wall. The artist treats the moment in the spirit of a commentator’s remark when the book appeared. Rather than the high drama typical of pirate adventures, the reviewer said, Pieces of Eight featured “a polite treasure hunt which, compared to [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s handling of the same plot lacks the thrills of real buccaneering, but which is romantic and beautifully descriptive.” Their pirate escapade accomplished, the lovers have returned to the costumes and demeanor of their British colonial status.
Born in Liverpool, John Scott Williams spent most of his career in New York. While he exhibited his paintings widely and completed murals and stained glass window designs, he was also known for his illustrations. He sometimes collaborated with his wife Clara Elsene Peck, another successful illustrator.
Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration