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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Howard Pyle, "Pen and the Major in St. James Street," March 1907, oil, sold for $93,500. Photo courtesy of Illustration House
The turn-of-the century was a window of opportunity for American illustrators.

Nowadays as we rediscover illustrators of the era like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Jessie Wilcox Smith, the Golden Age of illustration comes to life once again.

In 1865, there were about 700 magazines in the United States. By 1900, that number jumped to almost 5000. The growing middle class longed for good reading and colorful illustrations, and the demand for writers and artists skyrocketed.

In this television age, it’s hard to imagine a time when books and magazines were the major form of entertainment. But that’s how it was at the beginning of the century.

Howard Pyle led the way with hundreds of books and articles he wrote and illustrated. He was one of the renowned illustrators of the 19th century and the founder of the Brandywine school of art, a school that changed how children pictured gallant knights, stately kings and fearsome pirates.

His pen revealed basic human emotions like grief, pride and goodness. Beyond writing and illustrating, he was a teacher who attracted students like N.C. Wyeth, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and Maxfield Parrish.

Children today still read his The Merry Adventure of Robin Hood, and The Story of King Arthur and his Knights.

Born in 1853, Pyle lived in a world of heroes and villains as a young child, through Grimm’s German Fairy Tales and The Arabian Nights.

“I cannot remember a time when I did not like books and pictures, so that time, perhaps, was the beginning of that taste that led me to do the work I am doing now,” Pyle said.

Hours of reading, combined with a Quaker soft spot for reflection, and a love of the Wilmington, Del., countryside created a rich inner life for the artist. Pyle drew on this inner life throughout his career. He looked for new ways to tell old stories in his color illustrations, humorous line drawings, and often used angels as chapter heads.

Some were beautiful. Some inspiring. Some stern.

Pyle was known for opposites in pen style. Depending on the project, his drawings could be traditional and decorative, or impressionistic.

He worked for publications like Scribner’s, St. Nicholas, The House of Harper-the largest American publisher at that time, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Collier’s Weekly. The children’s books he wrote and illustrated include The Wonder Clock and Pepper and Salt.

If you’re interested in understanding popular culture of the last-100 years, American illustrations are good places to look. There is a strong nostalgic pull to the field.

About three-fourths of all the early original illustrations were tossed away after their initial use. So scarcity is a factor. Value depends on the artist. Medium. Subject matter. Size. Condition and rarity.

On May 6, Illustration House, New York City, featured their spring auction of original illustration art. A story illustration by Howard Pyle of two men walking along a street entitled Pen and the Major in St. James Street, published in Harper’s Monthly, March 1907, oil on canvas, 31 by 20 in. sold for $93,500.

Here are some other current values for illustrations.

Auction Highlights

Wallace Morgan, “I wasn’t particularly surprised to meet Bobbie in front of the club the next day,” story illustration of two men at automobile, horse drawn carriage going by, for Collier’s Weekly, Aug. 26, 1919, pen-and-ink, 10 by 19.25 in. $880

James Avati, paperback book cover, “Couple Embracing,” oil on board, circa 1955, 28 by 23 in., $1,650

Harrison Cady, “Turkeys Enjoying Thanksgiving Dinner,” probably for Life Magazine, circa 1910, pen-and-ink, 21.75 by 15.35 in. $2,200

Ludwig Bemelmans, “They got to the tent in time for the show,” book illustration of girls attending carnival, for Madeline and the Gypsies, 1959, tempera, 29 by 25.75 in. $66,000

Haddon H. Sundblom, “Carefree,” calendar illustration of a beautiful woman at the beach with her dog, oil on canvas, circa 1950, 40 by 30 in. $154,000

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