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Classic Covers: Ellen Pyle

Shown here with her children (often her models) from a 1928 issue of the Post, Ellen B.T. Pyle did over 40 covers during the 1920s and 30s, from rosy-cheeked toddlers to sprightly flappers. We take great pleasure in showing her most memorable covers.

“Germantown, Philadelphia, was my birthplace, and my dream of life was to be able, someday, to be an artist,” wrote Ellen Pyle in the April 7, 1928, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Become an artist she did.

The August 6, 1927, cover is one of the sweetest, showing a rosy-cheeked toddler holding a seashell to her ear, enchanted with the sound. Pyle catches that enchanting childhood wonderment again for the February 22, 1930, cover showing grandma and youngster listening to the radio. Oh, we can’t help it—look at that face!

“The absorbing task of raising four children put artwork in the background for a time. There has been a great deal of discussion as to whether a woman can keep on with her work and be a competent mother,” wrote Pyle. We wonder if she would be surprised that this issue remains tricky more than 80 years later! Using her own children, their friends, and neighbors as models, she captured youngsters doing ordinary kid things: tackling a hornets’ nest in the backyard, cuddling an irresistible lapful of baby chicks, enjoying a snack while doggie beggars look on.

We were delighted when, in 2007, we reran the 1934 cover of girls selling flowers (“5 cents a ‘Bunsh,’ ” the sign read) and received a letter from a reader who let us know what memories it brought back. “The older girl is my mother, and the younger is my aunt,” wrote Sara Chatzidakis. It helped that the girls’ neighbor was Ellen Pyle.

Pyle also had a fondness for illustrating young women in action. “The girl I am most interested in painting is the unaffected natural American type, the girl that likes to coast and skate in winter, who often goes without her hat, and who gets a thrill out of tramping over country roads in the fall,” she noted. The pretty archery aficionado of the October 8, 1927, cover and hockey player of the January 22, 1927, cover are prime examples. No knitting needles for these gals.

Of course, Pyle also depicted grown-ups doing ordinary things: Grandma and grandson waiting at the bus stop on a chilly day with their groceries and the spiffy couple dressed up for a fancy evening only to discover a flat tire … in the rain. But we promised you flappers. Also “going without their hats” are the fetching young ladies with the bobbed hair and headbands of the Roaring Twenties: January 21, 1922, and February 4, 1922.

The artist lived to see two of her children attend art school and achieve success in their own right. She noted, “I criticized their work, and they often pose for me, and at times it seems as if everyone in the house was either painting or being painted.”

The first career retrospective of Ellen Pyle’s art will be on display from August 1, 2009, to January 2, 2010, at the Delaware Art Museum. The exhibit features 45 paintings in addition to photographs, magazines, and personal memorabilia.

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  • Joyce Schiller

    One correction, Ellen died at the age of 60.

    And one comment, The Delaware Art Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Ellen Pyle’s illustrations called, “Illustrating Her World: Ellen B. T. Pyle” that will run through January 3, 2010.

  • Jesuit

    Knew quite a few artists in my youth.
    Most of them specialized in drawing welfare.

  • Jesuit

    Beautiful collection of Pyle’s enchanting artwork–which serves as a testament to The Post’s abiding good taste and high standards.
    Especially appreciate the smart elegance, the captured femininity, of “Target Practice.”