The Travels of the Soul By Howard Pyle - Revisited

Jun 3 / Howard Lyon
** I am just getting back from Italy so my brain is a little (A LOT) jetlagged so I am reposting a post from 2019 that I think deserves another look!
Last year (2018) I had the chance to go see the Keepers of the Flame exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It remains one of the greatest exhibitions I have seen. Not just for the art, though it was among the best and most beautiful, but for the information and catalog. Here is a link to the catalog on Amazon, (happy to see it available now and at a somewhat reasonable price, it was getting REALLY expensive).Four paintings that I had not seen in person stood out. Howard Pyle’s Travels of the Soul. I found myself coming back to them over and over. They are original in their palette and composition and the execution is so full of brilliance that I think you could learn much of what it means to really use paint, just by studying these four paintings. They are also compelling in their imagery, showing vignettes of the mortal experience.
The Wicket of Paradise

Here, the woman has just left paradise and her soul is entering the mortal realm. Just behind the door, waiting for her is Death. He waits patiently, playing an instrument to pass the time before the inevitable. I love the arrangement of the wings on her head. They don’t sweep back, but forward and out to the sides. I know that I would have not done them this way, but they are so interesting. The foliage is all just indicated and used to create interesting shapes. I also love how Pyle would treat the shadows. Look how warm and high in value the shadows are on her dress and skin where she is in the light, but it quickly falls off as the light does.

In this detail you can see how simple but fascinating the edges, values and paint application are. Variety is another word for contrast Pyle took every change to give variety to all the tools at his disposal. You can also see at the top of the dress in the bottom of the image below, that not all the shadows are in the lower painting layers, but applied last or nearly so on top of the light side.

This painting of Death is almost not there. So much is lost in the shadows and edges completely disappear, but the impact is not lost. I want to paint like this!

In the Meadows of Youth

Here the woman is entranced by love and music, lead by some divine presence. Death is still there, playing his tune in the background. Not stalking her, but waiting. It’s a bit dark, but also pragmatic. More brilliant painting. Impasto, glazing, scraping, drawing, hard and soft edges, contrast and edges that turn into mist and fade into nothing. It’s all there and all done so well.

You can see where he blocked in the mass of the wings based on the brush strokes, but then painted the feathers or shadows that the individual feathers cast, onto that mass, creating the detail. The woman’s hair flowing across the wings was painted the same way. I love seeing the hand of the artist in the final painting. It’s like a time machine and you see both the entire effort in one moment, but also the process of the painting unfold in front of you.

The musician’s profile is only just discernible as it fades into the shadows. I love the subtle shifts in color temperature across her cheek and neck and shoulder.

In the Valley of Shadows

Hard ship has come into the woman’s life. I am guessing that it is the “bitter cup” that the woman is being offered by a figure in mourning. She looks back on the trial, not wanting to face it and braces herself against the rock. Death, now above her continues to serenade her with his instrument.

The goblet is given just enough information to make it feel smooth, gold and reflective. I can’t see a brushstroke that I would remove. Woman’s eye in shadow is interesting to me. It is just catching the light. The eye in the light seems slightly morose, but at rest, but there is a tension with the eye in shadow that I think adds a lot to the painting. Imagine it if it were darker, or just lost in shadow. I don’t think it would be as interesting.

Here is a detail of the woman’s robes. It’s an abstract blend of paint application. You can see the canvas in places, rubbed down, glazed or painted thickly in spots.
At the Gates of Life

The woman is now at the end of her journey and is entering back into paradise. Death’s watch is over, though he stands with his arm barring the path backwards. She can only move forward, looking up to whatever awaits her. I love all the pastel colors in the light and again, the way Pyle keys up the values in the light to add to the sense of illumination.

These were just four of many masterworks in the show. I can’t wait to share more in future posts! Thanks for taking a look and reading today.

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