Last summer I was strolling through the galleries of the new Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, surrounded by the exquisite paintings of Matisse, Modigliani, Cézanne, when a small painting of Abraham Lincoln and his father building a log cabin caught my eye. A wrinkled woman with fiery hair and dangling diamond earrings froze beside me, also awestruck. “Look at that one,” she said to a friend, staring up at the wall. “How beautiful. Who on earth painted it?”
The Barnes has one of the finest collections of French Impressionist and modern art in the world, and because of Alfred Barnes’s eccentric wall arrangements, holding a viewer’s attention is no small matter in a museum vibrating with Matisse’s raw colors and bulging with far too many plump, Renoir nudes.
That day in Philadelphia I opened my notebook and wrote the following:
And just so I wouldn’t forget, I underlined Pippin’s name three times. And then I starred it for good measure.
A descendent of slaves, Horace Pippin’s biography is a compelling one. Here is an excerpt from his Wikipedia entry:
He was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Goshen, New York. There he attended segregated schools until he was 15, when he went to work to support his ailing mother. As a boy, Horace responded to an art supply company’s advertising contest and won his first set of crayons and a box of watercolors. As a youngster, Pippin made drawings of racehorses and jockeys from Goshen’s celebrated racetrack. Prior to 1917, Pippin variously toiled in a coal yard, in an iron foundry, as a hotel porter and as a used-clothing peddler.
Pippin enlisted in the army in 1917 and fought in the famous, all-black 369th Infantry regiment in France during World War I. Less than a month before the war ended, he was shot in the right shoulder.
“When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,” he once wrote, but war “brought out all the art in me. . . . I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunsets. So I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.”
While in the trenches, Pippin kept illustrated journals of his military service. Six drawings survive, and I was excited when I stumbled on these journals and letters online at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art…
(NOTE: Click images to enlarge)
One website on Pennsylvania history describes the evolution of Pippin’s brief career:
After the war, the handicapped Pippin devised a way of supporting his right hand with his left. Using a hot poker to burn in the outlines of his figures and objects onto wood (a technique called pyrography) and then filling them in, he was able to resume painting by the mid-1920s. He then began using oil paints. Local exhibitions and collectors brought him to the attention of Alain Locke, an important black philosopher and critic, the painter N.C. Wyeth,… and Dr. Albert F. Barnes, whose private museum in Merion houses one of the world’s most important collections of French impressionist and modern art.
Words like “toiled” appear frequently in Pippin’s biographies and give some hint at the reverential tone that has been used to describe the artist over the decades. His personal story is so riveting that Melissa Sweet and Jen Bryant have just written a new children’s book about the artist called A Splash of Red.
Although everyone from wealthy collectors, museums, and Hollywood stars bought his work, Pippin’s rapid rise in the art world had its downside: Pippin’s wife suffered from mental illness and he began to drink heavily. By the time of Pippin death in 1946 at the age of 58, he had completed 140-odd paintings, drawings and wood panels. In his obituary in the New York Times they called him the “most important Negro painter” to have appeared in America.
Pippin’s legacy has been somewhat muddled by critics’ failed attempts to categorize him. His inspiring life-story has prompted some historians to portray him as an “art genius” in the best of cases, and as a sort of “noble savage” of the art world in the worst.
Loaded terms like “primitive” and “naive” have been used to lump Pippin together with artists from the African continent and self-taught masters like Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and Grandma Moses. The art world has always been fascinated by “the primitive” and “exotic,” and as a result, Pippin has received more attention that many African-American artists with formal training. “Self-taught” can be a useful distinction, but it can also have the effect of pushing artists like Pippin into a particular corner of the museum, as though they have no right to hang beside a Picasso or a Matisse.
And this is why it was so refreshing to see Pippin sharing the company of Cézanne and Renoir that afternoon at the Barnes. It showed that he DOES belong beside art’s “Big-Boys” (and alas, it is mostly “boys”). Pippin’s paintings are perfectly capable of holding their own and don’t need special labels to justify their inclusion in the collection of a major museum. The art of Horace Pippin speaks for itself.
At the Barnes Foundation, it was useful to see Pippin alongside so many stunning paintings by Henri Rousseau, for in many ways Pippin is the American Rousseau. Their work shares a similar flatness of perspective, rich color palette, and use of stylized forms.While Rousseau painted the exotic tropical plants he saw in books and at the botanical gardens in Paris, Pippin’s eye was drawn to the American landscape that he knew first-hand: log cabins, Quaker meeting houses, forests, town squares, court houses, and rural farms. While Rousseau is all about lushness and exoticism, Pippin’s aesthetic strikes me as uniquely American and African-American.
His use of woodgrain is especially original. The texture of wood is everywhere in Pippin’s work—in floorboards, in the walls of log cabins, in family dinner tables, in picket fences, on clapboard-covered houses, in wagon wheels, on Windsor chairs, in a warped table, in the forest where a family collects maple syrup, on the cross where Jesus is crucified, on the skin of a man being beaten.
Seeing a painting like Pippin’s Supper Time near a hand-painted Pennsylvania German chest and a West-African carving, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Artists will use whatever materials are close at hand, and the U.S. has always been incredibly rich in timber resources.
Pippin worked seriously as an artist for a little more than a decade, and during that time the country was suffering through the Depression. The austere wood, chocolate browns, and smoky blacks, combined with well-placed, punches of color, are fitting for the era. By the 30s, the art world had moved beyond the jubilant colors of Matisse and Monet, so prominent in earlier decades.
Pippin’s paintings are in the tradition of other New-Deal artists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, whose murals and canvases depicted ordinary rural life. While Farm Security Photographers like Walker Evans and Gordon Parks captured everyday scenes with their cameras, Pippin communicated with wood, canvas, and paint. His painting, Mr. Prejudice, (shown above) is a nod to Depression-era propaganda posters, with Mr. Prejudice driving a wedge into the “V” of victory. In the foreground, Pippin depicts white figures on one side of the canvas and black on the other, segregation as Pippin experienced it during the war and after.
During his life, Pippin was best known for his landscapes, domestic scenes, and religious paintings. Today, it is his historical scenes showing John Brown and Abraham Lincoln that receive the most attention. (Artist Jacob Lawrence said this his own series on John Brown was inspired by Pippin.)
As Steve Conn writes in his essay “The Politics of Painting: Horace Pippin the Historian,” “For many African-Americans, Lincoln remained their Moses. Pippin’s scenes from Lincoln’s life honored that memory.” Carl Sandburg’s popular biographies of Lincoln appeared in 1926 and 1939, and in 1942 composer Aaron Copland set the Gettysburg Address to music.
The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, and in 1939, it served as the backdrop for an historic Easter concert by Marian Anderson. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a new location in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Quoting Scott Sandage, Conn points out that Pippin was aware of Anderson’s achievement and painted her portrait twice after the Lincoln Memorial performance: ”In one bold stroke, the Easter concert swept away the shrine’s official dedication to the ‘savior of the union’ and made it a stronghold of racial justice.”
You can watch Anderson’s performance in this 1939 video…
Most white Americans remembered John Brown with ambivalence, but as Con points out, Brown “occupied a special place in African-American memory.”
In The Trial of John Brown, Conn insightfully observes that “Pippin has painted all fourteen men in this composition with virtually identical faces, creating a visual pun on the phrase ‘jury of one’s peers.’”
According to family legend, Pippin’s grandmother had been at Harper’s Ferry for Brown’s execution. Conn believes that the woman staring out at us from the bottom right corner of John Brown Going to His Hanging depicts Pippin’s grandmother and is the artist’s way of drawing a personal connection between himself and the event. Here is Conn:
Pippin has forced the viewer to become one of the crowd that cheered Brown’s death. He has thus forced the viewer to choose sides. Are we simply observers of this event like the rest of the assembled crowd? Or would we have objected? …The sole black figure…faces the viewer squarely, and with a scowl on her face she rebukes us for the action in the painting.
In the cases of both Brown and Lincoln, Pippin is creating a new mythology for these historic figures. His paintings tell us less about John Brown and Abraham Lincoln as actual men and more about how these two figures were mythologized by some members of the African American community.
Pippin may challenge art critics by defying categorization, but that is precisely his brilliance. His paintings are sincere and deep without being saccharine. As philosopher and writer Cornel West says, Pippin’s art “portrays black people as ‘fully themselves’—that is, as they are outside of the white normative gaze that requires elaborate masks and intricate posturing for black survival and sanity.” It’s this empathy that radiates from his compositions.
West sees Pippin as an “Emersonian” artist—an artist who existed between categories, celebrated the exceptional in the everyday, and as Emerson famously exclaimed, “embrace[d] the common”:
The artistic affirmation of every day experiences of ordinary people is anti-elitist, but not anti-intellectual – that is, it shuns a narrow mentality that downplays the joys sufferings of the degraded and despisde, yet it heralds high standards for how these joys and sufferings are represented in art. Pippin’s paintings — as a grand instance of the Emersonian tradition in American art — attempt to democratize (not denigrate) the aesthetic by discerning and displaying tragedy and comedy in the ordinary experiences of common folk…
Like the early blues and jazz artists in American music, Pippin’s art remained rooted in black folk culture, yet also appealed to the culture industry of his day. He indeed gained significant validation and recognition from the white art establishment—but at what personal and artistic cost? Do all American artists in our market culture bear similar costs?
Art critics struggle with Pippin because he does not fit neatly into a category or school. But Pippin didn’t need to buy into some pre-defined idea about what art should or shouldn’t be—he didn’t need to hitch himself to a specific art movement in order to get his work into the public eye. He earned critical acclaim the hard way: by creating outstanding art.
“Pictures just come to my mind,” Pippin famously said, “and I tell my heart to go ahead.”
As Judith Stein recounts in I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, Pippin once said the following to friend and artist Edward Loper: “Ed, you know why I am great?…Because I paint things exactly the way they are….I don’t do what these white guys do. I don’t go around here making up a whole lot of stuff I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.”
This is not to suggest that Pippin was some kind of exotic, visionary genius. Only that he followed his own intuition as a painter and expressed his own reality in the only way he knew: visually. This is no easy task for a black artist in Pippin’s day.
Pippin’s art reminds one of Sterling Brown’s poetry or Bessie Smith’s music, in that all three artists rejected two dominant models of black art in the white world at the time: black art as expressive of the “new Negro” and black art as protest. Instead, they build on the major paradigm of black art in the black world: black art as healing, soothing yet humorously unsettling illuminations of what it means to be human in black skin in America.
Pippin’s subject matter—politics, history, religion, and autobiography—speaks to us today because it is still relevant in the 21st century. But more importantly, his visual language is highly original, arresting, and perfectly capable of communicating with us through the barriers of time, race, and class, even when a wall of Matisses and Picassos are screaming for our attention.
And regardless of which labels critics attach to Pippin’s art, isn’t communication the entire point?
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. Instead of selling out to advertisers, I’m “selling out” to my readers instead! 90+ Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and just over $9500 of the $15,000 goal has been raised. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards here on the Gwarlingo site.
Stay up on the latest poetry, books, and art news by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy and free! You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.