Pippin, Horace 1888–1946
Horace Pippin 1888–1946
The most celebrated African American painter of his time and one of the greatest of any period, Horace Pippin had an improbable and brief artistic career. Sometimes likened to the French painter Henri Rousseau, Pippin was considered an artistic genius, with his own sensuous vision of the world, by leading African American artists and art historians. He was a self-taught painter of primitive, or naive art, with a refined, contemporary sense of color and design. Scholars such as Selden Rodman have noted that Pippin’s work depicted the black experience in America without “an assumption of inferiority” or “attitudes of protest or satire acquired in defense” but simply and literally from what was inside his head.
Pippin rose fast in the art world, overcoming many personal hurdles, including poverty, racism, and injury. A World War I combat veteran, Pippin’s first painting was of the war memories that haunted him; the artist was 43 years old. He’d struggled for years to use his right arm, which had been shattered by a German sniper’s bullet. Initially discovered by an influential art scholar in his hometown in Pennsylvania, Pippin soon mounted a show at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. Thereafter, his work surfaced in solo exhibitions in leading art galleries, found a permanent home in numerous American museums and private collections, and won him several prizes and an honorable mention. Less than ten years after he received national recognition, Pippin died of a stroke.
In addition to his recollections of combat, Pippin’s works depicted the struggle of black Americans for equality as they fought in World War I, figures in American history who opposed slavery; biblical themes from an African American perspective; and scenes of daily life drawn from his own memories of childhood and adolescence. The titles of his works reflected the tone of his feeling—Barracks, Mr. Prejudice, John Brown Going to His Hanging, The Holy Mountain series, Domino Players, and the Cabin in the Cotton series.
In his book Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America, Rodman wrote: “The act of painting for Pippin began as a catharsis, a means of ridding himself of the nightmarish encounters of war. When he depicted American troops, they were Negro soldiers, members of his own division—himself.” Rodman pointed out that Pippin’s paintings of modern war scenes “[have] not been approached in power by any sophisticated painter.”
Born February 22,1888, in West Chester, Pennsylvania; died of a stroke July 6,1946; son of Horace Pippin and Harriet Pippin (some sources list his mother as Christine); married Jennie Ora Featherstone Wade, 1920. Military service: U.S. Army, 1917–19, became corporal, received Croix de Guerre.
Painter, 1931–46. Before starting artistic career, worked as a farm hand, coal unloader, feed store assistant, hotel porter, and furniture loader. Exhibitions include Museum of Modern Art and the Bignou and Downtown Galleries in New York City, the Carlen Galleries in Philadelphia, the Art Club of Chicago, and San Francisco’s Museum of Art; some paintings were color reproduced in Time, Life, The New Yorker, and Encyclopaedia Britannica; works hang in permanent collections in Whitney Museum, Philadelphia Museum, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Barnes Foundation, Phillips Memorial Gallery, Rhode Island School of Design, and Wichita Art Museum.
Selected awards: $600 Purchase prize for a work exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, 1943; first prize for two works shown at The Pyramid Club, Inc., Philadelphia, 1943; fourth honorable mention for a work presented at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, 1944; J. Henry Schiedt Memorial Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1946.
Pippin’s work first gained notice when it was shown at the “Masters of Popular Painting” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1938, and later at the Carlen Galleries in Philadelphia. Other works by Pippin hang in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Barnes Foundation, the Phillips Memorial Gallery, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Wichita Art Museum. His “life story of art” and military service memoirs are housed in the Archives of American Art. In 1994 and 1995, his works traveled to museums around the country in a major retrospective, organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and titled l Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin. A book of this name was published in connection with the show.
Pippin himself did not believe art could be taught. The artist, he maintained, simply needed to have a love for his craft, and paint from his heart and mind. About his technique, Pippin himself stated, “The pictures which I have already painted come to me in my mind, and if to me it is a worth while picture, I paint it. I go over that picture in my mind several times, and when I am ready to paint it, I have all the details that I need. I take my time and examine every coat of paint carefully and to be sure that the exact color I have in mind is satisfactory to me. Then I work my foreground from the background. That throws the background away from the foreground. In other words bringing out my work.”
Because of his injured arm Pippin used small brush strokes, particularly when painting grass or trees, and his paintings were preconceived, not spontaneous. Pippin’s painting The End of the War: Starting Home was so thick with paint layers it had a sculptural quality, but generally his works appear two-dimensional because he used flat, bordered shapes and added surface details later. While Pippin used few colors in his war paintings, he used many colors in others, among them electric reds, glowing whites, and intense greens.
In his book, Rodman described Pippin’s reliance on design. Of Pippin’s vivid work, Domino Players, which shows three women playing dominoes at a table while a fourth sits in a chair near the stove, quilting, Rodman observed: “The horizontal lines of the floor boards, repeated in the partially revealed wall laths, are broken by the strong verticals of the table legs and stove pipe, while the staccato dots of the dominoes—white on black—are reiterated in the blouse—black on white—of the central figure, in the cap—black on red—of her opponent, and in the white flames seen against the red of the fire in the stove.” Rodman also noted how this painting sheds light on Pippin’s background. “There was poverty,” he acknowledged, “but also pride and dignity.”
Horace Pippin was born into a family of laborers on February 22, 1888, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. When he was still a young child his family moved to Goshen, New York. His memories of these towns appear in his paintings. Pippin developed an early interest in art. He sketched horses at the local racetrack, and in elementary school he also drew, often getting scolded by his teachers for it. After seeing a magazine advertisement that read, “Draw Me—and win a prize!” Pippin drew the face pictured and mailed it off. Soon he received the prize—a box of crayons, water colors, and two brushes. He used the crayons to draw biblical pictures on muslin doilies he had made, and they were later sold at a Sunday school festival.
At 14, Pippin worked for a farmer who offered to send him to art school after seeing a sketch Pippin had done of him while he was sleeping. Pippin was unable to take advantage of the offer because his mother was ill. For the next few years, Pippin cared for and supported her. At 15 he unloaded coal, then he assisted at a feed store. When he was 18 he became a porter at a neighborhood hotel, during which time his mother died. Later, he loaded furniture in Paterson, New Jersey, a job which enabled him to crate and study paintings.
During World War I, when he was in his late twenties, Pippin joined the National Guard in New York and wound up serving with other black soldiers in France in the 369th Infantry, where he was promoted to corporal. Under bombardment from German troops, Pippin sketched his impressions of his fellow front-line soldiers and their surroundings; these rough drafts later made their way into his early war paintings. During an advance he was hit in the shoulder by sniper fire and carried on a stretcher to a base hospital, where little could be done for his wound. After spending a few months there, he was sent home in 1919, and discharged. He and the men in his regiment were awarded the Croix de Guerre for heroism, but Pippin recalled, “My right arm was bound to me. I could not use it for anything.”
Unable to work, Pippin returned to the town of his birth, met and married a widow with a child, Jennie Ora Featherstone Wade, and lived off his disability pension and her earnings as a laundress. He Was preoccupied with war memories but had no way to express them artistically. One day in 1929, he tried using a hot poker to burn an outline into a panel from the dining room table, which he set up facing him. With the poker in his right hand and his left hand supporting it, he was able to make a drawing. Later he filled in the outline with color, creating a picture. He worked this way for a year. When he noticed his wrist and arm seemed stronger, he tried working at an easel. Three years later he completed his first canvas, titled The End of the War: Starting Home.
In their book Six Black Masters of American Art, Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson reported: “In the painting, German soldiers are emerging from trenches and dugouts to surrender to black soldiers…. In the sky, bombs burst and planes fall in flames. It is a hauntingly grim picture, the faces of all the soldiers without expression. No one looks triumphant…. This picture of utter destruction and desolation, so patiently and intensely worked over by a man wounded and disabled in the war, is a profound antiwar painting.” The paintings that followed—including Barracks, perhaps Pippin’s greatest—also reflected his war remembrances with powerful intensity.
In 1937, Christian Brinton, an expert on Oriental art who had been interested in Pippin since seeing one of his works in the window of a shoe repair shop, apparently began spreading the word about Pippin’s paintings. He contacted someone he knew at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and in 1938 four of Pippin’s works appeared in the museum show called “Masters of Popular Painting,” which drew a lot of attention. Evidently Brinton also talked about Pippin to a Philadelphia art dealer named Robert Carlen, whose gallery hung Pippin’s first solo show in 1940.
An influential art collector named Albert C. Barnes of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania saw Pippin’s works and bought several of them. He also wrote in the introduction in the catalog for the Carlen show that Pippin was “the first important Negro painter to appear on the American scene.” Probably because of Barnes’s interest, the show attracted the attention of critics, collectors, art magazines, and columnists, as well as more museums and galleries. Afterwards, Pippin’s works were exhibited in solo shows in Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, where they were also well-received.
In 1940, some of Pippin’s paintings were shown for the first time at the Bignou Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street in New York City. “Pippin is at his best when the subject is an intricate, Rousseau-like landscape,” commented a Newsweek reporter, while Robert M. Coates enthused in The New Yorker, “Precise, sharply drawn, and minutely detailed, his works have decided charm and reveal, too, a kind of natural sophistication in the use of color that is at times surprising.” Throughout the early 1940s Pippin’s canvases were presented in exhibits at the Art Club of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Art; the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh; and the Downtown Gallery in New York City.
Almost all of Pippin’s paintings were sold during the Downtown Gallery show, one of the biggest exhibits of the works of black artists during World War II. One of his landscape paintings, Cabin in the Cotton III, won fourth honorable mention and one hundred dollars in a competition when his work was shown as part of “Painting in the United States, 1944” at the Carnegie Institute. The painting was later bought by Charles Laughton, the movie actor.
An Artnews critic later elaborated on the work: “Cabin in the Cotton III is a haunting picture… of a man playing a banjo in front of a log cabin set before a field of white cotton, painted in dots on a near-white ground. Near him a woman in a red bandanna and an apron with red polka dots plays the harmonica. The sky is hot red at the horizon, with long white clouds in a cool blue above. The yard, in the darkening day, is a green so deep it’s almost black. Black hills rise in the distance. The painting is suffused with Pippin’s unique formal drama: the red, white, and blue set off by the heavy darks, in this case.”
During the 1940s, Pippin was hired to paint a picture for the Capehart series; the picture was later reproduced in color in Life, Time, The New Yorker, and other magazines. His painting, The Holy Mountain I, was printed in The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s compilation of art of the twentieth century. Part of a series he painted during World War II, Holy Mountain I depicts a man with a staff, surrounded by animals in a peaceable kingdom—in effect, the artist’s personal call for peace. The pictures Pippin painted then sold right away, and he could hardly meet orders for them. By the mid- 1940s collectors of Pippin’s work included critic Alain Locke, statesman Averell Harriman, and others.
Unfortunately, fame took its toll on Pippin’s spirits and marriage. His wife became ill and entered a mental hospital. Ultimately they died within two weeks of one another, Pippin leaving a painting unfinished on his easel. Though his life was not without tragedy, Pippin persevered and was deservedly awarded the prestige few artists have been able to claim in so short a time. In Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America, Rodman concluded, “Pippin, in contrast to other Americans, has given us a world: sometimes sombre and terrifying, but more often vibrant with counterpoint of textures and ringing color…. [He] managed somehow to convey a vision of the ’American scene’— its history and folklore, its exterior splendor, and interior pathos.”
The End of the War: Starting Home, c. 1930.
Outpost Raid: Champagne Sector, 1931.
Gas Alarm Outpost: Argonne, 1931.
Shell Holes and Observation Balloon: Champagne Sector, 1931.
After Supper, West Chester, c. 1935.
Cabin in the Cotton series, 1935–44.
Country Doctor, 1935.
Portrait of My Wife, 1936.
Coming In, 1939.
Amish Letter Writer, 1940.
Birmingham Meeting House series, 1940–42.
Marian Anderson portrait series, 1940–41.
The Whipping, 1941.
Abe Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, 1942.
The Trial of John Brown, 1942.
John Brown Going to His Hanging, 1942.
Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943.
Domino Players, 1943.
Mr. Prejudice, 1943.
Abe Lincoln’s First Book, 1944.
Uncle Tom, 1944.
The Milkman of Goshen, 1945.
Victorian Interior, 1945.
The Holy Mountain series, 1944–45.
Man on a Bench, 1946.
Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1946.
American Primitives: Hicks, Kane, Pippin, Alpine Fine Arts Collection, Ltd., 1983.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, Six Black Masters of American Art, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972, pp. 60–75.
Stein, Judith E., I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, with Universe Publishing, 1993.
Rodman, Selden, Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America, The Quadrangle Press, 1947, pp. 3–28.
Sellen, Betty-Carol, Twentieth Century American Folk, Self Taught and Outsider Art, Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 1993, p. 401.
Wheat, Ellen Harkins, Jacob Lawrence: American Painter, University of Washington Press, 1986, pp. 64–65, 74, 197.
American Artist, April 1945.
Art News, January 17, 1941; March 1–14, 1944.
Artnews, February 1990, pp. 157–58.
Art/World, April 1977, p. 10.
Black Enterprise, March 1994, p. 93; April 1994, p. 107.
Ebony, February 1994.
The Nation, February 28, 1948, pp. 253–54.
Newsweek, October 7, 1940, pp. 52–3.
The New Yorker, October 12, 1940.
The New York Times, October 27,1989, p. C32; March 20, 1994, Sec. 2, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1988, pp. 1, 22–4.
The Soho Weekly News, May 5, 1977, p. 22.
Time, January 29, 1940.
USA Today, January 12, 1994, p. D1.
Additional information obtained from “For the Benefit of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: Horace Pippin, A Retrospective Exhibition, Monday, April 4, 1977,” a flyer from Terry Dintenfass Gallery preview opening in New York City.
—Alison Carb Sussman
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was one of America's principal African American artists and among the foremost primitive painters of the 20th century.
Horace Pippin was born in West Chester, Pa. According to his own account, he began to make pictures at the age of 7. In 1895 he went with his mother to Goshen, N.Y., where he attended school. At 14 he was employed doing odd jobs on a farm; a year later he began unloading coal for a living. In 1912 he took a job in a storage warehouse. He enlisted in the Army in 1917 and was sent to France, where he was badly wounded. He was honorably discharged from the infantry in 1919 and married the following year.
In the 1920s Pippin revived his interest in art. In 1930 he painted his first oil, End of the War: Starting Home, a World War I scene. Christian Brinton discovered Pippin's work in 1937 and arranged for a one-man exhibition at the West Chester Community Center. In 1940 Pippin attended classes at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., the only formal art education he received. That year Albert C. Barnes wrote the introduction to the catalog of the Pippin show held in Philadelphia.
In his portrait of Paul B. Dague, the deputy sheriff of West Chester County (1936), Pippin scrupulously included various insignia—buttons, a medal, seal, and gavel—all indicative of the sitter's position of authority. Pippin sometimes borrowed from other sources, such as calendar illustrations. His Woman at Samaria (1940) was mostly modeled on an old book engraving, but the blood-red sky may have been inspired by his own memory of a sunset. In the 1940s he became freer and more inventive in his use of colors, as in the portrait of Christian Brinton (1940), where a rich color pattern is used for the necktie and the handkerchief folded in the jacket pocket.
Three canvases (1942) commemorate the saga of the antislavery activist John Brown: the Trial of John Brown,John Brown Reading His Bible, and John Brown Going to His Hanging. In 1943 Pippin painted a grim Crucifixion. But many of his works have a poetic, intimate quality, such as Saying Prayers (1943), in which two children, about to go to bed, kneel beside their mother. Here, as in much of Pippin's work, there is an instinctive feeling for design; the door, window, large stove, and leaning umbrella are powerful forms, geometrically reduced.
Very little of Pippin's work has to do with social protest or with historical events. He loved to paint the simple things he knew best—interior scenes showing the tenderness of members of a family toward one another, still lifes, and people working together on a farm.
Selden Rodman, Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America (1947), is a well-documented, sympathetic introductory essay with 50 plates, most of them in black and white. □