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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: ‘Howard Pyle in Wisconsin’ steeped in stories

Layers of history enrich the paintings in the St. Norbert College exhibition.

PHOTO: This exhibition frontpiece graces a gallery entry in St. Norbert College’s Bush Art Center. Warren Gerds photo

DE PERE, Wis., (WFRV) – On the Internet, you can view all the paintings in “Howard Pyle in Wisconsin,” an exhibition on display in the Bush Art Center at St. Norbert College.

You could stay at home and tap, tap, tap at you computer and get an idea that Howard Pyle was an illustrator with flair.

Certainly talented.

Must have been prolific, if what’s in the exhibition is just one burst of his activity.

Must have had a brain as big as a house, the way he takes history and matters of a spiritual nature and pours drama and theatricality into them.

That’s all there if you tap, tap, tap and stay home and hug your p.c. as you look at www.antiquariansocietygbdp.org.


You can go to the art center and peer at the paintings up close. I mean, UP CLOSE. This is one of those exhibitions where you can put your nose practically on the rises of brush strokes.

You can be inches away from an artist’s presence.

In this case, the artist’s hand put into place what you are viewing approximately 112 years ago.

You can see what was important to Howard Pyle in many of these paintings – faces. There is an intense concentration on what the focal figure is expressing, with the artist getting everything just so, just right. Around the focal points, the artistry is less perfect-o, but there is dynamism. Even in areas more quickly done, the artist has flashy flourishes.

After seeing the paintings together in one room, I had a sense of this style of illustrative art being like an adventure movie of its day. (Movies were yet to come when Howard Pyle painted these).

The exhibition includes three letters involving the paintings. Two letters are signed by Howard Pyle. One dated May 15, 1904, to Mrs. Arthur C. Neville tells of the technology of the day when it starts, “I telegraphed you today…” That letter makes reference to “President Woodrow Wilson.” He wasn’t president of the United States at that time. He was president of Princeton University. In a sense, Wilson was president – a president – for a long time overall.

In the letters, Howard Pyle is congenial and gracious. That’s interesting, considering what the paintings in the exhibition express – someone of force, of confidence, of certainty, of fuss, of scholarship, of imagination. Type A was something yet to be identified at the time of the paintings, but Type A is written – or painted – all over them.

The exhibition comes with layers of history. You’re looking at paintings more than 100 years old that look back at points of history 100, 300 years back from that point. And some of the physical paintings have a history of their own as you find out in the timeline that they had gone missing.

The paintings in the exhibition are important enough to have drawn the attention to a need to validate their place in the spectrum of scholarship. Through a grant – and thorough effort – the paintings have an added provenance of a catalog made by St. Norbert College resources and Green Bay and De Pere Antiquarian Society and the Neville Public Museum of Brown County.

The paintings are now truly historical. THUMP. There is a stamp of approval.

“Howard Pyle in Wisconsin” is up through Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. A reception will be held from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5. The catalog will be available at the reception, and it will be on sale at the St. Norbert bookstore.

In the exhibition, “Howard Pyle in Wisconsin


“Travels of the Soul”

  “The Wicket of Paradise

  “In the Meadows of Youth”

  “In the Valley of Shadows

  “At the Gates of Life”

Black and white

  “Washington Before the Trenches at Yorktown

  “The Capitulation of Louisbourg”

  “Sea Fight”

  “Nathaniel Bacon and His Followers Burning Jamestown

  “Fight Between ‘Bonhomme Richard’ and ‘Serapis’”

  “The Burning of the ‘Gaspee’”

  “Colonel Rhett and Pirate Stede Bonnet”

  “Slaves at Jamestown, 1619”

  “A Pennsylvania Cave Dwelling, 1683”

  “Phips Recovering the Sunken Treasure”

  “An Interview Between Sir Edmund Andros and James Blair”

  “On the Warpath”

  “The Boston Tea Party”

  “Slaughter Signing the Death Warrant of Leisler”

  “Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston

  “Ships Loading in Albemarle Sound

  “Political Discussion”

  “Arrival of Stuyvesant at New Amsterdam

The catalog helps place Howard Pyle in the realm of illustration – fueling the lore of Robin Hood and pirates – through the introduction by St. Norbert College curator Shan Bryan-Hanson and an essay by a key keeper of the Howard Pyle flame, Heather Campbell Coyle of the Delaware Art Museum in his hometown Wilmington.

All the paintings are in the catalog, just like on the Internet. But they speak most in person. I moved from one painting to the next, thinking, “Well, Mr. Pyle, what have you going now?”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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