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The Pirates of Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle (1853-1911), Marooned, 1909, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 in., Delaware Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1912.

Close your eyes. Picture a pirate. Any pirate. Open your eyes.

Is this who you pictured?

headshot of artist howard pyle
Howard Pyle

I thought not. You probably conjured a person who looks like Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), Peter Newton as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island (1950), Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook from Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), or likely Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s more recent Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Regardless of whether you thought of a famous Hollywood portrayal, or a costume found in the Spirit Halloween store, the iconic look of the mythical pirate comes from the artistic vision of the man pictured above: artist, illustrator, and author Howard Pyle.

What’s cool about Howard Pyle, aside from his incredible success and immense influence as an illustrator and teacher during the Gilded Age era at the turn of the twentieth century, is his undeniable influence on popular culture even to this day. Pyle is perhaps most famous for his 1883 illustrations for The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, but he also invented the iconic look of the mythical pirate.

It’s quite a feat for a man who knew virtually nothing about what pirates of the sixteenth century looked like (there’s no known visual record of them) to fashion an entire look from his fertile imagination. He blended seafarer imagery from the era with a Spanish gypsy look to create the exotic and menacing guise of a dangerous nautical rogue, or at least what he thought that might look like.

“He created something out of mixing something from history and made something very seductive,” said historian and illustrator David Rickman. “So seductive that no pirate ever wore anything differently. When one person can change the world’s view of something—that’s remarkable. All the world only recognizes pirates because of Howard Pyle.”

Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates

One of his most celebrated works, Marooned (1909), offers a classic example of stereotypical pirate attire: headscarf, earring, red sash, buckled shoes. It is currently on view in our temporary exhibition In American Waters: the Sea in American Painting.

Howard Pyle (1853-1911), Marooned, 1909, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 in., Delaware Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1912.

In this work from the Delaware Art Museum, a pirate is abandoned on a desert island in retaliation for violating a shipboard code of conduct. The barren beach becomes his death sentence.

Come see this work and more at In American Waters, open now through January 31. Get tickets here.

Written by Stace Treat, head of interpretation.