Horace Pippin

 

Pippin an African American painter, was one of the foremost self-taught artists of the twentieth century. A descendant of former slaves, Pippin was born in West Chester,Pennsylvania, a small town near Philadelphia. Raised in Goshen, New York, he settled in West Chester as an adult. Pippin saw active duty in France during WorldWar I as a member of the famous 369th Regiment of African American troops. Shot in the shoulder by a German sniper in 1917, he subsequently rekindled his boyhood interest in art when he taught himself to paint as therapy for his injury. In 1938 the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, “Masters of Popular Painting,”included four Pippin paintings following his inclusion in a West Chester group show. Championed by Robert Carlin, his Philadelphia dealer, and by the Philadelphiacollector Dr. Albert Barnes, Pippin’s talents soon garnered a national audience. In an essay accompanying Pippin’s 1947 memorial exhibition, the Howard University scholar Alain Locke called him “a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artisticmaturity so uniquely as almost to defy classification.”Pippin had his first New York solo exhibition in 1940. Early critics, eager to honor American achievement with favorable comparisons to well-known Europeanartists, awarded Pippin the accolade of “The American Rousseau,” as they had with the Pittsburgh painter, John Kane (1860–1934). Pippin died of a stroke at agefifty-eight, only nine years after he had first come to prominence. His small oeuvre, numbering fewer than 140 paintings and drawings, includes self-portraits and portraits of those whom he loved or admired; still-lifes; richly detailed memory pictures of black family life at the turn of the century; sportsmen in outdoor settings;firsthand depictions of black soldiers in combat; and protests against social injustice.The shrapnel wounds in his right shoulder restricted Pippin’s range of motion. Right-handed, he used his left hand to brace his weaker limb. He preferred to work onsmall-scale compositions. In the 1920s Pippin whittled decorative picture frames and jewelry boxes, now lost. His first paintings were on wood, for which he employeda combination of etched lines and brushed-in color. Pippin devised a technique of burning on the outlines of images with a hot iron poker from the stove. He worked onthe flat surfaces of wooden shingles, as well as on panels cut from the spare leaves of oak extension tables. His first painting on canvas, End of the War: Starting Home (1930–1933), depicted German soldiers surrendering to troops of the 369th Regiment. Its decorated frame, carved with images of war matériel, is unique inPippin’s work.A master of design, Pippin adroitly allowed the graining and tonality of his wood panels to read as integral parts of the overall composition. In his early work, Winter Scene, Pippin refrained from painting inside the incised outlines of trees and a log cabin, thus rendering the supporting surface and the image magically as one. Thevisual punning of the coloration of wood and dark skin is realized to haunting effect in The Whipping (1941), a powerful indictment of the abuses of slavery. Several Pippin paintings address the history of abolition. His grandmother’s eyewitness account of the 1859 hanging of the antislavery activist John Brown, for example, provided the basis for a 1942 painting that depicted her as the sole African American onlooker, staring out at the viewer on this historic occasion. Pippin’s Holy Mountain series, painted during World War II, adapted the biblical prophecy of Isaiah for a vision of future peace.Whether Horace Pippin depicted domestic interiors or the natural environment, he was acutely sensitive to his surroundings. His painted patchwork quilts, for example, often reflect an African American aesthetic. Pippin was also attentive to seasonal changes, cloud patterns, and circadian light rhythms. Dawn-reddenedhorizons and crimson-stained twilights often appear in his landscapes, such as Duck Shooting (1941), Cabin in the Cotton III (1944), and Temptation of Saint Anthony (1946). Once, when describing the influence of his war experience on his later work as a painter, he wrote, “I can never forget the suffering, and I will never forget the sunsets. I came home with all of it in my mind.” Pippin’s last completed painting is Man on a Bench (1946), a meditative portrayal of an older AfricanAmerican that is widely regarded as a spiritual self-portrait.