Wander the web and you will find dozens of reproductions of Howard Pyle’s 1903 painting, The Nation Makers, being offered for sale as prints, giclées, and paintings copied in China. The image and title seem to inspire everything from thoughtful consideration to reverent devotion on various blogs and web sites. It’s not as though this was the only illustration of a revolutionary war subject that Pyle ever painted: between 1877 and 1903 he produced over 85 other illustrations of revolutionary war subjects. So what is it about this painting that stimulates such interest?
While Pyle illustrated many different types of stories, his personal favorite were those on the colonial past and the war for independence. One of his students quoted him as saying, “Colonial life appeals so strongly to me that to come across things that have been handed down from that time fills me with a feeling akin to homesickness . . . and my friends tell me that my pictures look as tho’ I had lived in that time.”* So in some measure, a kindred feeling for that past motivated all of his images about that time.
This painting is rather simple: it depicts a line of soldiers in tattered clothing and bandages marching forward through a field of grass and wild flowers. Bloodied, they do not hesitate. The picture’s action takes place just after the troop has come over the slight crest of a hill. The line of troops surges forward in an implied diagonal across the painting’s surface that runs from the lower right of the painting across to the upper left of the canvas rendering an image of forceful action. Just behind the front line of the troop, more individuals and horses fill the space and an outstretched open hand is silhouetted against the sky. The tattered and shredded stars and bars on its staff stands out, carried behind the troop’s leader directing the charge. Pyle’s painting of individualized faces reminds us that he used his students dressed in appropriate period costumes as models for his work. Pyle’s summer school classes were held in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania near where the Battle of the Brandywine was fought on September 11, 1777, when 3,000 soldiers lost their lives.
While The Nation Makers is an image of a mass of humanity surging forward, that mass is composed of identifiable individuals, as in all wars and battles. None of these individuals turn and looking out at us the viewers, instead they are all moving forward into their future. That concentrated action gives us hope that we too will bear our responsibilities honorably.
This painting is unique. Of all the revolutionary war battle images Pyle made, this is the only one he produced without a specific story to interpret and when he did sell it as an illustration, it was not until three years after its creation and then it was published without a story. This might have been understandable if Collier’s had published it in a July 4th issue or a June 14th Flag Day issue when a patriotic focus was expected; instead it was brought out in the June 2nd issue of 1906. The delay between creation and publication was due in part to the painting being included in Pyle’s December 1903 special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was one of 110 art works shown. Whatever the reason for its creation, it is a compelling image that reminds us of the proud history of our nation and Pyle’s devotion to that history.
* Helen Farr Sloan Library, Delaware Art Museum. Howard Pyle Manuscript Collection. Ethel Pennewell Brown and Olive Rush, Notes from Howard Pyle’s Monday Night Lectures 1904-06: entry page 6, dated 1904 June 27.
September 11, 2009
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum