Horace Pippin


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Painter. A self-taught African American, he produced works of great visual sophistication and emotional resonance. His large and consistent body of work, which includes many different types of subject, elevates his contribution beyond the level normally achieved by untrained artists. Drawing on observation, memory, and imagination, he painted genre scenes, landscapes, and still lifes, as well as literary, religious, and historic themes. Pippin was born near Philadelphia, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and lived there during his adult life, although he grew up in Goshen, New York. After his formal education ended with the eighth grade in a segregated one-room school, he worked at menial jobs, as he continued to do after moving to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1912. Sent to France with the U.S. Army in 1917, he fought at the front until wounded nearly a year later. He had drawn since childhood, but it was his World War I service that slowly transformed him into an artist after he returned to West Chester, his right arm now useless. By stubbornly trying to make art (he concentrated at first on burning designs into wood panels) as he reflected on his military experience, he not only found purpose for his life but also strengthened his arm. In 1928, when he was forty, he started his first important oil painting, The End of the War: Starting Home (Philadelphia Museum), an apocalyptic vision of trench warfare. After three years and dozens of paint layers, he completed this antiwar statement with a hand-carved frame depicting war materiel in relief. While gradually developing greater fluency, he painted in obscurity until 1937 when art critic Christian Brinton (1870–1942), a West Chester native who retained ties there, discovered his work and brought it to the attention of the New York art world. Only a year later, his paintings appeared in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, and before his death several major museums hosted solo exhibitions of his work. In 1940 Pippin met collector Albert C. Barnes. Through visits to the Barnes Foundation, where he became familiar with the works of Renoir and Matisse, he grew artistically. As his color brightened and he enhanced his facility for abstract design, Pippin nevertheless always retained a flat, somewhat awkward manner of drawing and a preference for two-dimensional, shadowless forms. Nearly all Pippin's works focus on African Americans, and many of the best connect intimately to his inner life. Most of these date from the 1940s, when he was in full control of his technique and confident of his vision. In The Domino Players (Phillips Collection, 1943), two women compete on a kitchen table as a youngster looks on. Behind them, near a glowing stove, a woman sews a bright quilt. As is usual among his many tranquil domestic scenes, the subject derives from idealized memory, although many details are acutely observed. John Brown Going to His Hanging (Pennsylvania Academy, 1942), the final scene from a series on the abolitionist, poignantly contemplates the tightly bound martyr's last moments on a horse-drawn cart as he passes an interracial crowd. Compositionally, a stark black-and-white pattern, relieved by blood-red accents, enhances the somber theme. An African-American woman, clad in the Civil War colors of blue and gray, faces the spectator at the side: she is the artist's grandmother, his witness and narrator, and his personal connection to this violence-drenched moment.


Subjects: Art.

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