Pirates of pizazz: Delaware Art Museum celebrates century with Pyle’s iconic images

The Delaware Art Museum is celebrating its 100th anniversary with pirates.

The Wilmington museum was founded with the paintings and illustrations of artist and illustrator Howard Pyle, immediately following his death.

Pyle is perhaps most famous for his 1883 illustrations for “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.” He also invented the iconic look of the mythical pirate.

Pyle blended the look of a 16th century sailor with a Spanish Gypsy, with distinct accouterments: a headscarf, a gold earring, and a long sash around the waist.

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But a real sailor would never wear those things.

“Could you imagine climbing a rigging with a sash this long?” said historian and illustrator David Rickman. “A headscarf–why would you wear a headscarf when sailors then and today wear stocking caps? There’s no real reason for this.”

The headscarf, earring, and sash may not work at sea, but they work very well on the page where the pirate’s job is not to sail a ship but instead look distinct, exotic, and dangerous. That was Pyle’s genius.

“He created something out of mixing something from history and made something very seductive,” said 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.”

The pirate paintings by Pyle hanging in the Delaware Art Museum show lean and grizzled men with hard features and bloodthirsty eyes–a far cry from the dapper rogues in “Pirates of Penzance,” the 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

“Back in the day, pirates were entrepreneurs, no different than I am today,” said Pat Croce, a fitness mogul, former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, and founder of St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum in Florida.

Those crooks and murderers have been so thoroughly romanticized that even Disney has made heroes of them. While Pyle created the look of the pirate, the sound of the pirate was invented by actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney’s “Treasure Island” from 1950.

The distinctive growl through the side of the mouth was Newton’s invention.

“That’s where we got the ‘aaarrrgh’ and the parrot on the shoulder,” said WHYY film critic Patrick Stoner. “That was because Newton was from Cornwall, and he exaggerated his accent.”

Pyle’s pirate can be traced from Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” (1935) to Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Ties “(2011), whose look also channels the rogue of rock ‘n’ roll, Keith Richards.

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