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Pirates: From the Golden Age of American Illustration

June 15 through September 21, 2003


In an age of corporate raiders, self-dealing insider trading, and hidden off shore limited partnerships, which is to say at a time when contemporary piracy is rampant, it seems appropriate and, perhaps, relevant to look back at the origins of piracy in modern myth and imagination. While there is little to romanticize in today's scandals des jours and criminal behavior is nothing to celebrate, there was a time when pirates came to symbolize something of the essence of late 19th- and early 20th-century social, economic and political culture, a culture characterized by rapacious industrialists and swashbuckling individualists like Teddy Roosevelt. (right : Howard Pyle, An Attack on a Galleon, 1905, Illustration from "The Fate of a Treasure Town," Harper's Monthly Magazine, December, 1905, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches, Courtesy Delaware Art Museum)

Indeed, the myth of the pirate has its origins in the romantic in art and literature: from the novels of Sir Waiter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson; from Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (with its indictment of bureaucratic corruption); and Charles Codman's Pirates' Retreat where an atmosphere of mystery, danger, awe, and the natural sublime argued against the implacable, de-humanizing forces manifest in newly evolving social class structures based on wealth, and the rigid, hierarchical social and political controls of the Industrial Age in general. Thus, the idea of the pirate took on a certain ambiguity -- lawlessness, but freedom, too; individuality achieved through conflict and even brutality; high risk and immense reward. In a sense, the image of the pirate came to mirror certain conflicted attitudes toward social progress, loss of individual identity and control over one's destiny. Unlike an imagined West in the paintings of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and many others who idealized and promoted notions of Manifest Destiny and the relentless advance of Western civilization, pirates can be viewed as agents of disruption and destruction, slowing, if never quite halting, the orderly processes of government and commerce. (left: Howard Pyle, The Flying Dutchman, 1902, Illustration from "North Folk Legends of the Sea," Harper's Monthly Magazine, January, 1902, Courtesy Delaware Art Museum)

Aside from possibly reflecting larger cultural phenomena, Howard Pyle, who more than anyone else invented the image of the pirate, asked the key rhetorical question, explaining why the subject of pirates suddenly attained such wide popular appeal:

"... would not every boy, for instance -- that is every boy of any account -- rather be a pirate captain than a Member of Parliament?"

This exhibition presents the romantic representation of pirates that reached its apogee in the works of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Dean Cornwell and other American illustrators during its golden age from the latter decades of the 19th Century through the first half of the 20th Century. Pirates! includes a selection of vintage Hollywood films and film memorabilia from Douglas Fairbanks and The Black Pirate to Steven Speilberg's affectionate nod to several previous film versions of Treasure Island that he produced as The Goonies. These films from Hollywood's own golden age suggest that filmmakers often based their own visions of pirates on the work of these illustrators from set designs and costumes down to gesture, costume, make-up, framing, and even facial expressions -- in itself a form of piracy that is often overlooked in the history of film. Props, costumes and historical artifacts will also be presented in an attempt to separate fact from fiction, recognizing that real pirates were often stranger and more fascinating than their imaginary counterparts. And while Pyle suggests in his question the appeal held by pirates for little boys, it is worth recalling Ann Bonney and Mary Read, two of the most notorious pirates on the Spanish Main! (right: James Wyeth, The Thief, 1996, oil on panel, 36 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches, Private collection)

(left: Andrew Wyeth. Dr. Syn, 1981,tempera on panel, Private collection)Pirates! will be on view in the Wyeth Center galleries from June 15 through September 21, 2003, and will place a major emphasis on works by illustrators Pyle, Wyeth, Schoonover and Cornwell. Additionally, historical paintings by Dean Schaffer, Charles DeFoe, Charles Codman and George Ropes, Jr., will be on display. Farnsworth Art Museum Director Christopher B. Crosman is curating the art and illustration components of Pirates!

Pirates! artifacts will include period navigational instruments, weapons, broadsides and early books on the subject of pirates, replicas of pirate flags, a War of 1812 naval tunic, props from N. C.Wyeth's studies, and movie posters.

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