Howard Pyle was born in 1853, and over the course of his life went from struggling artist with little professional training, to well-respected artist with his own school of illustration. Out of his whole artistic history, his pirates are my favorite. By Howard’s time, very little in the way of accurate representation of pirates was available. Drawing from Gypsy clothing style and his own sense of the flamboyant, Pyle created a costume for pirates that influenced movie pirates from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp. (See the wiki) His pirate dress code is acknowledged as impractical for real life sailors, but to this day, our modern concept of a pirate is due to Howard Pyle’s creative styling.
He also ‘cleaned up’ Robin Hood. Before Pyle, Robin Hood was more ‘Hood’ than ‘Merry’. Where Robin Hood originally killed a large group of men for backing out on a bet, Howard turned Robin into a defender who only killed in self-defense, and only if he couldn’t first subdue his opponent. Instead of being a straightforward bandit, Pyle’s Robin Hood allowed his victim to keep a third, one third went to the poor, and Robin kept the rest.
Of course, I particularly enjoy his medieval take on knights, castles, King Arthur, and the rest. Howard Pyle didn’t just draw some knights fighting and call it a day. He did his research. Below, you’ll see his illustration “Two Knights do battle before Cameliard”. It’s a beautiful illustration, but there’s a lot of implied history in the scene. For instance, Cameliard was Guinevere’s home while growing up. Her father, King Leodegrance, was the owner of the famous Round Table. Leodegrance gave the table to Arthur as a part of the dowry for Guinevere.
Knowing all that gives the artwork much greater impact. And knowing that Pyle did that deliberately, in full knowledge of history and legend, really impresses me. It’s like the original version of our modern DVD Easter Eggs.