Her Story

Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle was born in the Germantown section of Philadelphia on November 11, 1876, to Newcomb Butler and Kate Ashton Thompson. She had an older sister, Edith (Montgomery), and a younger sister, Katherine (Mallery). Ellen showed interest in art in her teens, and by 1895, she was an art student at Drexel University, where she first studied with Lydia Austin (who wed Maxfield Parrish in 1902) and Charles Grafly. By 1898, she had become one of Howard Pyle’s pupils. She showed talent, and she was one of a dozen students invited to attend Pyle’s summer art school in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1898 and 1899. It was while she studied with Howard Pyle that she met his youngest brother, Walter, who was seventeen years her senior and married. Ellen appears to have discontinued her studies with Howard Pyle by 1901 and returned to her parents’ home, where she continued her illustration work. Walter Pyle’s wife, Anna Jackson, died tragically in 1903. A year later, Walter and Ellen were married and, along with Walter’s son, Gerald, moved to a house in Wilmington, Delaware. After her marriage, Ellen had a few illustrations published; however, once their children arrived, Ellen suspended her illustration career. Walter Pyle, Jr., was born in 1906, and three daughters—Ellen, Katharine, and Caroline—followed in 1907, 1911, and 1914. In the photo below, Ellen holds young Caroline and is surrounded (clockwise from right) by Walter Jr,. Katharine (Katie), and Ellen (ca. 1915).

In 1918, the family moved to a beautiful farm in the country called Westbrae. The three-story house and surrounding 40 acres were a perfect place to raise children and enjoy gardening, nature, and the outdoors. Ellen and Walter were thrilled with their new home. Sadly, just over one year later, Walter died in the fall of 1919 from the same kidney disease that took the life of his brother Howard in 1911. At the age of 43, Ellen found herself widowed with four children to raise. Eventually, she battled through her deep grief and began to rebuild her career as an illustrator. Katharine Pyle, Walter’s sister, helped Ellen to find work, and in 1922, her first cover for The Saturday Evening Post was published. Ellen’s career gained momentum, and she went on to create forty covers for the Post, ten dust jackets for books by Berta Ruck, and a number of other works, including covers for Parents magazine, Literary Digest, and Everybody’s magazine. She frequently used her children and Wilmingtonians as models. She died on August 1, 1936, of heart disease. She is buried with her husband in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.

A retrospective of her work was curated and exhibited by the Delaware Art Museum from August 2009 through early January 2010. A companion book to the exhibition is available for sale from the Delaware Art Museum. This book includes a full biography, family photographs, and a complete exhibition checklist.