These beachgoers on the covers of the Post are having the dream summer vacation.
The Saturday Evening Post was the first magazine to accept Ellen Pyle’s work after her husband’s death in 1919. “The girl I am most interested in painting is the unaffected natural American type,” Pyle said in her 1928 interview with the Post. Her children often posed as models for Pyle’s paintings, but it was her brilliant use of color and loose, broad brushstroke style that made her one of the Post’s most recognizable female artists.
Charles A. MacLellan started creating art for the Post during a time when narrative illustrations dominated the covers. His most memorable covers were those with children, typically boys. Often these boys were in some kind of trouble, but it’s the kind of trouble that makes their viewer smile. In his portraits of women, MacLellan nearly always drew them in action and often gave his models a prop, such as this woman and her beach clothes.
This is one of six covers that Alex Ross painted for the Saturday Evening Post. All of his covers featured beautiful women, but this beach scene is the only one that doesn’t focus on a single girl. This 1943 cover does follow Ross’ usual style, however, because the women don’t appear to be over-joyed about their card game.
Constanin Alajalov’s painting of the new arrivals picking their green and embarrassed way through the tanned regulars, could have been made on any beach in the country. For that feeling of outstanding pallor is well known from coast to coast, and there is no lotion for it, except that in a few days you can sneer at even later arrivals. Alajalov made his sketches in Palm Beach, Florida, when the Northerners were arriving last winter.
Artist John Falter’s setting for his surf-bathing cover is Ogunquit, Maine. He made his first sketches while spending the summer in Maine, but didn’t get around to painting until last winter. By that time the lucky lad was in Phoenix, Arizona. The hotter that Arizona sun got, the more fondly the artist thought of Maine’s cool air and cool spray. So he went to work on a picture of Maine as remembered in the Southwest. The pretty girl in the left foreground, just emerging and shaking out her hair, often appears in Falter’s cover paintings. But doesn’t get a model’s pay for her work. She is Margaret Falter. John’s wife.
Don’t worry about the tiny cover girl who is going down to the awesome sea with her eight-inch ship. Just as Austin Briggs, who was vacationing at Folly Beach, Charleston, South Carolina, spied the seagoing tot, her mother let out a yelp and splashed into the foam after her. Now there, thought Briggs prophetically, could be my first Post cover.
In the winter, people buy sun lamps to get sun, and in the summer they buy beach umbrellas to keep the sun off. Well, have a wonderful time, folks; build your sand castles and your dream castles; let the cool winds and the hot dogs renew you; and don’t even let the annoyment creep in if that boy’s radio prevents your hearing the sweet nothings he whispers to his girl. Now turn the page, before the kids start throwing sand.
Mr. Rodney Fischer, an eminent metropolitan banker who is accustomed to being treated with deep respect, is not being. If that is a sardine he has caught, it may cop the surf-casting championship, for it is indeed of great size. But the boys’ happy faces and the man’s apoplectic face indicate that it is a small sample, or child, of something more ambitious. Mr. F. should set his rod in the gadget Dick Sargent has painted behind him, and lie down and relax his bile; if he goes to sleep, he may catch something decent. While he stands up, his blinding raiment must terrify all the fish who are old enough to think.
Ellen Pyle is proof that illustrating can be like riding a bicycle. A student at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, one of the top art schools in the country, she studied with famed illustrator Howard Pyle. There she also met her teacher’s brother, Walter Pyle, who would later become her husband.
Showing promise even as a first-year student in 1895, Pyle published her first of many illustrations. She went on to find success illustrating children’s books and magazine articles, but in 1905 chose to give up her career to focus on motherhood. Reflecting on this in a 1928 Post interview, she said, “Probably people vary a great deal, but I found that when there was a young baby in the family … it was not practical for me to spend all day in the studio. One or the other had to take second place.”
But when her husband Walter died in 1919, Pyle needed to support her four children and so turned back to art. The Saturday Evening Post was the first magazine to accept her work, and by the end of her career, she had illustrated a total of 40 Post covers. Her children and neighbors often modeled for her paintings that portray traditional American life.
“The girl I am most interested in painting is the unaffected natural American type,” Pyle said in her 1928 interview with the Post, “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.” This girl definitely fits the bill.
This cover is a great example of Pyle’s use of brilliant color and loose, broad brushstroke-style.
Art certainly ran in the Pyle family. Ellen Pyle’s daughter Katie modeled for this cover, and her two oldest children, Walter Jr. and Ellen, became artists themselves, and her youngest, Caroline, married into the Wyeth family of artists.
The grays surrounding this pair shadow the scene but the bright colors of the fruits and vegetables in the basket offer promise of a warm home-cooked meal.
The most interesting thing about this cover isn’t the woman driving a convertible in the snow, but the child who’s glancing back at us wondering the exact same thing.
Reprinted on the Post in 2007, this cover prompted reader Sara Chatzidakis to write us with some background on the image. It turned out the little Post girls were Chatzidakis’ mother and aunt, who modeled the scene for their neighbor, Ellen Pyle.
One of Pyle’s covers of everyday life, it’s the details that make this piece stand out. You can see the disappointment on the man’s face as he looks back at the tire after reading the sign “5 Miles to Mac’s Garage.” Looking at those diagonal lines going across the page, this will be one wet trip.
Pyle tried to hide her signature in her paintings, making them the same color as the work itself so they blended into the background. Her signature here appears in the right-hand corner and matches the grass.
In the 1920s flapper era of parties and glamour, no Saturday Evening Post artist covered the period of graceful elegance like Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle. Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 11th, 1876, Pyle had a slow-building rise to fame that spanned many decades between her art studies and her working years as an artist.
Pyle began her art studies at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University) in 1895. While there, she studied under Lydia Austin and Charles Graffy. She was at the top of her class, earning a spot in Howard Pyle’s summer art school at his studio in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in 1898 and 1899. It was at Howard Pyle’s summer school that she joined a group of prodigy illustrators including N.C. Wyeth, and met her future husband Walter Pyle, who was helping his brother Howard.
The story of her relationship with Walter was complicated, and ruled over much of her time away from her lifelong passion creating art. Though the two met at Walter’s brother’s summer art school, it was years before they would reconnect. Walter was 17 years Ellen’s senior. At the time the two met, Walter was also married to another woman.
Having finished her formal education, Ellen moved home to live with her parents and was working as an illustrator from her makeshift home studio by 1901.
In 1903, Walter’s first wife died. Six months later, he called upon Ellen and within the year, the two were married. The two moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Ellen took time away from art to raise her growing family. The two, madly in love, had three children, son Walter Pyle, Jr. (1906) and three daughters Ellen (1907), Katie (1911), and Caroline (1914).
Ellen’s husband, Walter Pyle, was a wealthy businessman who owned a feather factory in the northeast. In 1918, the family moved to their newly purchased 40-acre farm, Westbrae in Greenville, Delaware. Shortly thereafter, Walter suddenly died of Bright’s Disease a year later in 1919 at the young age of 42.
Ellen, then widowed, returned to working as an artist in order to provide for her many children. Walter’s sister Katherine sent three of Ellen’s illustrations to The Saturday Evening Post in 1922, two of which were immediately selected by The Post’s famous editor, George Horace Lorimer.
Over the course of the next decade and a half, Pyle completed forty covers for The Saturday Evening Post, illustrations for Parents’ Magazine, Literary Digest, Pictorial Review, Everybody’s Magazine, and 10 dust jackets for books by author Berta Ruck. Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle died of a heart condition on August 1st, 1936, at the peak of her career as a working artist.
Today, many of her illustrations remain housed in private collections including those built by her living relatives. In 2006, an original Saturday Evening Post illustration was rediscovered through the television series Antiques Roadshow where the work was appraised with a value between $25,000-$30,000. In 2009, her great-grandchildren organized a “career retrospective” show at the Delaware Art Museum.
Covers by Ellen Pyle
Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle’s early illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post idealized the 1920s era of glamorous parties and celebration in much the same way Norman Rockwell would later celebrate an idealized rural America of the 1940s and 1950s.
But her notorious depictions of confident flappers in short dresses and even shorter haircuts changed when The Great Depression hit America in October of 1929. Pyle’s color palette and composition took on a darker tone that reflected the nation’s mood.
Pyle’s illustrations from the 1920s and 1930s show women competing in activities like archery, swimming, tennis, gardening, and hockey. The paintings are joyous and playful in the 1920s but become reserved in the 1930s.
Pyle’s August 20, 1932 cover, “The American Girl,” is a perfect example of the change in tone. Where Pyle once showed women smiling in brightly colored outfits, fashionable haircuts, and make-up, this Depression-era cover shows a female tennis player in a muted, brown canvas skirt and a loosely-hanging red top, her hair pulled back by a handkerchief. The glow of her cheeks results from the effort of her workout; it is not the rosy blush of joviality.
Not only has the color and hubris drained from the painting, but Pyle also foregoes her 20s era props of luxurious cars and carriages. This woman just sits on a simple wooden stool. Unlike her carefree flapper predecessor, the American girl of the 1930s is now a resilient heroine who adapts to tougher circumstances. She does without.
The darker color palette of browns and deep reds, combined with the wood of the racket and stool, project an air of simplicity as opposed to the gaudy glam of the decade prior. Rather than show an idealized world of parties that the majority of Americans would never know, Pyle turned to a sense of realism that would better connect with the struggles many Post readers were facing during the Great Depression.
From mowing and tree planting to a neighborhood nonconformist, 1950s-style, these timeless covers are just in time to inspire you to tackle that yard.
Woman in Wheelbarrow
June 20, 1931
Ellen Pyle (1876-1936) was known for her beautiful use of color. In 1927, she received a note from fellow cover artist Norman Rockwell about how much he liked her Post covers. “They are dandy. So full of color and so broadly painted. Believe me I envy you the latter quality particularly,” he wrote, according to Delaware Art Museum’s Illustrating Her World: Ellen B. T. Pyle.
As in many of her 40 covers for the Post, the model is one of Pyle’s children. In this case, teenage daughter Caroline is taking a wheelbarrow break from gardening duties.
Baseball Player Mowing the Lawn
July 20, 1946
“When summer rolled around,” wrote Post editors of this 1946 cover, “and the grass in Westport, Connecticut, began to grow as fast as a small boy’s hair, Stevan Dohanos recalled one of the duties of his youth and how mowing the lawn can ball up a man’s more important engagements.”
The frame house, however, was not in Connecticut, but back in artist Dohanos’ (1907-1994) hometown of Lorain, Ohio. Editors noted that he sketched it a couple years before it appeared on the cover. “Obviously it was a good stage, a good setting, but he never had decided just what story to tell against this background. Now he uses it to tell of a common summertime crisis—when the star pitcher has to work,” Post editors wrote.
Put the Tree There?
April 9, 1955
Illustrator George Hughes (1907-1990) was an avid outdoorsman, but we’re not sure how he felt about planting trees. He would probably feel the same as the poor guy from the local nursery on this 1955 cover, if he had to deal with an indecisive homeowner.
Hughes painted 115 Post covers, and was especially productive in the 1950s. Typical output for the more popular illustrators was around 40 to 50 covers during a decade. Hughes’ friend Norman Rockwell, for example, did 44 during this period. Hughes did 80 in this timeframe; mostly fun, slice-of-life scenes from midcentury suburban life.
Artist Thornton Utz (1914-2000) enjoyed gently bucking the trend and depicting the neighborhood nonconformist. Mr. Leisure in this 1957 cover uses his backyard purely for relaxation, not caring how high the grass gets.
Meanwhile, in nearby yards, neighbors are flummoxed by Mr. Leisure’s indifference—at least those who can spare a second from their suburban chores.
Spring Yard Work
May 18, 1957
Even the little girl in the middle yard wastes no time as she tends to her dog’s bath. Post editors mused that the cover might start a debate “about whether people should nourish their backyards or let their backyards nourish them.” We’ll let the reader decide.
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.”