Discovering the imagery of American female illustrators

December 1, 2014

Before Thanksgiving, I was talking to a colleague at the J. Paul Leonard Library about how students have changed in recent years. She referred me to the 2012 Learning Curve Study: How College Graduates Solve Problems Once They Join the Workplace, by Alison J. Head.

Reading this small but intriguing study, I encourage any reader who enjoys this blog to explore on their own, I will share primary resources used as I go along.


Known as a woman ahead of her time, Katherine Pyle (1863-1938) was a brilliant and vital individual whose career would never eclipse that of her older brother Howard Pyle. Pyle’s first published work was a childhood poem called “The Piping Shepherd” that appeared in Atlantic Monthly. She studied art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and with her brother at the Drexel Institute. Howard encouraged his sister to pursue a career in writing and illustrating books and included her verses in his book called The Wonder Clock, or Four and Twenty Marvelous Tales, One for Each Day of the Week (1887) published by Harper & Brothers.

Raised in the Quaker faith, Katherine Pyle became an active member of the Swedenborgian Church, and was known for her immense community spirit. Pyle was greatly concerned with local troubled youth that led to her involvement with the Juvenile Court in Wilmington, Delaware where she pressed for social reforms, often helping those in need, even at her own expense. Friends fondly remember her for having one blue eye and one brown eye.

During her career, Pyle illustrated about thirty books including the 1925 edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Early in here career, she collaborated with Drexel classmates including Jessie Wilcox Smith, Sarah S. Stilwell Weber and Bertha Carson Day; often providing texts for others to publish as first publications. Although she illustrated a number of books for other authors, her own stories were drawn from myths, fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and animal stories.

As a prominent female artist of her day, Pyle’s work was at times controversial due to her dramatic imagery for fairy tales and myths. In 1923, the editor of Child Life upon receiving two of her fairy tales commented that their editorial policy was to keep out “the horror element and adult experience from Child Life stories as much as possible.” Pyle contended that evil always defeated itself in traditional fairy tales and that good always triumphed. Pyle’s artwork is reminiscent to Howard’s illustrative style; although her compositions tend to be less complex, and she employed vibrant color for great effect.

The Katherine Pyle Papers are available in Special Collections at the University of Delaware Library:

Illustration by Katherine Pyle; “Dragon Rearing up to Reach Medieval Knight on Ledge online:

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