Journey Through American Illustration and British Pre-Raphaelitism at the Delaware Art Museum

A horse sculpture in the Contemporary Art Gallery in the Delaware Art Museum

If you’re an art enthusiast and find yourself in Wilmington DE, a visit to the Delaware Art Museum is an absolute must. This institution is far more than just a museum—it’s a treasure trove of art, history and culture.

The museum offers a well-curated collection of art, both historical and contemporary, with a lovely sculpture garden to add to the pleasure. You’ll enjoy exploring the outstanding collection of Pre-Raphaelite and American art. And its excellent outdoor sculpture garden and sunken labyrinth should not be missed.

A Legacy Founded in Tribute

The museum, originally the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, began in 1912, when a number of local citizens wished to honor Howard Pyle, a renowned American illustrator who died in 1911. The museum initially displayed more than 100 pieces of Pyle’s art, purchased from his widow, Anne. However, the Delaware Art Center (as it was known then) didn’t have its own building until 1938. Incredibly, even the Great Depression didn’t deter the art society from raising $350,000 to fund this venture.

The museum’s collection predominantly focuses on American art from the 19th to the 21st century, with a special emphasis on the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement of the mid-19th century. Of course, I got lost in the Contemporary Art gallery — I could have spent hours there.

The museum’s collections form an intricate tapestry of art history, with seminal works from Pyle and his students, including N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover. More modern acquisitions include works by Jacob Lawrence, Robert Motherwell, and George Segal, among others.

Pioneer of American Illustration and Storytelling

I actually enjoyed the Pyle and illustration exhibit more than I expected. Did you know that Pyle is responsible for how we imagine pirates look like? I also didn’t connect him to one of my favorite childhood books, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, published in 1883.

Howard Pyle (1853–1911) was a highly influential American illustrator, painter, and author, who primarily focused on creating books for young audiences. Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle spent the last year of his life in Florence, Italy.

In 1894, Pyle began teaching at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, now known as Drexel University. He later founded his own Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. His pedagogical influence extended to shaping what later became known as the Brandywine School, an artistic tradition that included notable artists such as N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover.

Left: Howard Pyle, 1898, The Evacuation of Charleston by the British, December 14, 1782, oil on canvas;
middle: Howard Pyle, 1908, Which Shall Be Captain?, oil on canvas; right: N.C. Wyeth, 1902, Study for Cover, oil on canvas.

Pyle’s work had a strong focus on medieval European settings and adventure themes. His 1883 book “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” remains in print to this day. Pyle also penned a four-volume set on King Arthur and is credited with crafting the modern visual stereotype of pirates.

Pyle contributed illustrations to popular periodicals of his time, including Harper’s Magazine and St. Nicholas Magazine, and left a lasting impact on American illustration and storytelling.

Howard Pyle was a cornerstone in American illustration and literature, shaping the careers of future artists and leaving a lasting impact on how stories, especially those set in medieval times and adventure genres, are visualized and told.

Left: Andrew Loomis, 1940, “Nora,” he said huskily, oil on canvas;
right: Allen Tupper True, 1907, The mountain pony has the climbing ability of the goat, oil on canvas.

Pre-Raphaelite Art

The Pre-Raphaelite art movement emerged in the mid-19th century, primarily in England, as a reaction against the academic standards and techniques of art that were dominant at the time. The movement was founded by a group of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Below are some key characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite art:

  • Focus on Realism and Detail: The artists aimed for extreme realism and meticulous attention to detail in their works, often spending a lot of time studying and painting directly from nature.
  • Medieval and Mythical Themes: Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by themes from medieval literature, mythology, and religion. They often painted subjects from Shakespearean plays, Arthurian legends, and Biblical stories.
  • Emotional Intensity: The art often contains highly emotional, sometimes even melodramatic, themes. Whether it’s the anguish of unrequited love or the inner turmoil of a religious figure, emotional intensity is a hallmark.
  • Vivid Color Palette: Pre-Raphaelite art is known for its vibrant, jewel-like colors. The artists used new pigments and techniques to create vivid, long-lasting hues.
  • Social Critique: Some works also include subtle social commentary, particularly focusing on the conditions or roles of women in Victorian society.
  • Nature as Symbolism: In many works, nature is not just a backdrop but a symbol loaded with meaning. Floral and botanical details, in particular, are often laden with symbolic significance.
  • Idealized Beauty: The depiction of women often leans towards an idealized form of beauty, with flowing hair, expressive eyes, and ethereal quality, which has sometimes been a point of critique for the movement.

Left: Aelfred Fahey, 1905, Within the Beguinage, oil on wood panel; right: Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale,
1922, Botticelli’s Studio: The First Visit of Simonetta Presented by Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici, oil on canvas.

Know Before You Go

The Delaware Art Museum offers free admission days from May through October. Check the website below for more information. As with most art museums, wear comfortable walking shoes because there are three floors of various exhibits to enjoy, in addition to the sculpture garden.

Getting there: 2301 Kentmere Pkwy, Wilmington, DE
Hours: Open Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Thursdays 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. April through December; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Closed New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
Website: Delaware Art Museum

Regional art museums are my favorite kinds of art museums — easy to digest and enjoy. Check out these regional art museums:

All three by Howard Pyle: upper left, The Muse of Drama; lower left, The Muse of Music;
right: When All the World Was Young, 1908, oil on canvas.