Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle (1876-1997)

Pretty In Pink
Pretty In Pink

Ellen Bernard Thompson was born on November 11, 1876 in Germantown, Philadelphia. At an early age, she dreamed of a time when she could cultivate her passion for the artistic life. She vividly recalled the day she began studying art at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Several teachers fueled the creative fire within her; Lydia Austin (Mrs. Maxwell Parrish), Charles Grafly and Howard Pyle.

Under the guidance of Howard Pyle, with his undying enthusiasm and sincerity, was just the opiate for this impressionable young girl. "I remember walking over to the station after his lectures and feeling I could hardly wait until the next morning to get back to work and start being a Michelangelo, which I felt sure I would have no trouble doing."

During her teenage years, she was one of the original ten students in Howard Pyle’s class at Drexel Institute and was invited to attend his summer school program in Chadds Ford, Delaware.

Her summer at Chadds Ford, Delaware also sparked another passion, when she met Walter Pyle the younger brother of Howard Pyle. Her attachment to Walter stood the test of time. Walter was married to and had a young son, Gerald, with Anna Jackson. Despite this obstacle as well as the substantial difference in age, fate had cast its spell. Ellen's parent, upon learning of this dilemma, refused to let her continue her instruction. She was forced home to Philadelphia where she established an art studio and spent the next several years pursuing her art career. She was not aware of the fact that Anna Jackson had died in 1903 until a knock on the door one spring morning revealed Walter with a bouquet of flowers. "Nelly", he said, "Will you marry me?" She accepted his proposal and in 1904 at the age of twenty-eight she and Walter Pyle were united in marriage.

The Pyle's lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where Walter ran the family leather business. Ellen soon abandoned her art to give herself full time to her growing family: Walter, Jr., Ellen Bernard Thompson, Katherine, and Caroline Ashton. Ellen commented in her biographical essay, "Probably people vary a great deal, but I found that when there was a young baby in the family unless the nurse was to have all the joy of caring for the child and the responsibility for its training, it was not practical for me to spend nearly all day in the studio. One or the other had to take second place." During this period the family moved from Wilmington to a lovely farm called West Brae, Delaware, where they led an idyllic life.

Tragically, in 1918, Walter became quite ill suffering from a kidney ailment that his brother Howard had also contracted. The illness progressed quickly and Walter died on August 27, 1919 at the age of fifty-nine, on the farm that he loved so dearly. Determined not to lose this lovely setting and the memories that it held of her happy time with Walter, she set about to keep her way of life at West Brae intact. Ellen turned to the very thing that had brought she and Walter together in the first place, her love and passion for art.

At forty-three, she was now solely responsible for supporting her four children through the marketing of her art. She began by painting in her guest room on the third floor. She was able to still enjoy and be part of the lives of her children, while having an outlet to take her mind off of the loss of her beloved husband, Walter. It soon became apparent that personal creativity and children couldn't live under the same roof. She mused, "Now I have the hayloft of a barn not far from the house made into a studio. The north window looks out on the orchard, and it is heated in winter with a wood stove."

For the next twenty years, she supported her family and became a well-recognized illustrator. She created forty covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Her first Saturday Evening Post cover appeared on January 21, 1922 depicting the face of a young woman. Her family found their way into her pictures not only as models, but also as participants in activities that she found interesting. "The girl or boy I am most interested in painting is the unaffected natural American type, the girl that likes to coast and skate in the winter, who often goes without her hat, and who gets a thrill out of tramping over country roads in the fall and bringing home branches of scarlet leaves for the living room." Ellen's children were her passion, which is depicted through her adorable depiction of children at play. Her artistry takes you back in time to your own childhood memories.

Two of her children Walter, Jr. and Ellen attended art school in Philadelphia and became successful and well known in their own right. Ellen quipped, "I criticized their work and they often pose for me, and at times it seems as if nearly everyone in the house was either painting or being painted." Ellen Pyle died on August 1, 1936, at the age of 59. For more information, please see www.ellenpyle.net.