"Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead." - Horace Pippin
"Pippin would paint for as long as seventeen hours at a stretch, holding the wrist of his injured right arm in the fist of his left hand..."- Seldon Rodman.
There is so much to see in a Horace Pippin painting. Especially in intimate domestic scenes recalling his childhood, with affectionate and a touch of tartness. Saying Prayers is centered around a mother and two children engaged in a familial ritual. I am drawn to the touch of gaiety in the woman's polka-dotted blouse. The mother sits in a spindle-backed chair while the children kneel on a braided rug where a little rag doll waits to be tucked in bed, perhaps. They are gathered in front of the coal stove, with a coffee pot warming. Behind the coal scuttle there are multiple patches of peeling plaster. A black shade is pulled down over the window but not so far that we cannot see snowflakes creased in the mullioned window an the wooden lathe-work revealed by peeling plaster below. At left we see an umbrella propped against the wall outside a bedroom door. The little family is bracketed by two shelves nailed to the wall, splashes of red, one holding a kerosene lamp and the other with cooking utensils hanging from it.
Painted during the same year, Asleep appears to show the same room with the same stove and green coffee pot. Only now the stool has been moved away from the window to make way for the children's bed. The kerosene lamp has been turned low for the night. Striped blankets and a patchwork quilt at the foot of the bed are the only touches of decoration, as is the braided rug is in Saying Prayers. My hunch is that the woman created as much beauty as she could manage for her home. Pippin's apparently economical style makes room for these telling details.
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the child of a laborer and a domestic worker, both descendants of slaves. Horace's interest in art crystallized when he won a set of crayons and a box of watercolors in a contest sponsored by an art supply company.
"(T)he war brought out all the art in me,"" Pippin recalled after he had become an established artist. He enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1917 and was shipped overseas where he was part of the renowned all-back U.S. 369th Infantry. Shot by a sniper in October, 1918, Pippin's right arm was severely damaged so that he could not lift it above his shoulder. For his valor under fire, Pippin was awarded the Croix de guerre by a grateful French government. His arm was useless when he returned home but it gradually became stronger; perhaps some of the nerve damage healed with time. Disability may contributed to the scrupulous attention to small details that characterize Pippin's paintings.
Pippin began painting on wooden panels around 1925; canvas was out of his reach because of its expense. Most of his paintings were made between 1930 and 1946. He did not begin painting with oils until he was forty and he never managed to have a proper studio but by the 1940s he was selling more work and so was able to paint more. Whatever his medium, Pippin always had a strong, personal voice; he copied no one.
The Barnes Foundation has claimed a major role in promoting Pippin's work but it was his relationship with his dealer Robert Carlen, beginning in 1939, that sustained Pippin's career. Carlen, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art when Ralston Crawford and Robert Gwathmey were also students, introduced Pippin to Albert Barnes. Barnes wrote an introduction to the catalog for Pippin's exhibition at the Carlen Gallery the next year.
Dr. Barnes was a complex and quarrelsome man, perennially at war with Philadelphia's conservative art establishment. While Pippin appreciated Barnes' support of his work, he was not awed and certainly not cowed by the millionaire's cantankerousness. More than once Barnes suggested subjects for Pippin to paint and the reply was invariably, "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint." Carlen and Barnes were eventually estranged because Barnes did not want to pay more for Pippin's paintings when success resulted in higher prices.
Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, was also a strong advocate of Pippin's work . Pippin benefited from the mid-century interest in folk art but we can take the measure of this versatile artist, accomplished in portraiture, history painting, landscape, still life, religious imagery, and the horrors of war. In the words of Alain Locke, "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so unique as almost to defy classification."
1. Horace Pippin - Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine Museum, West Chester.
2. Horace Pippin - Asleep, 1943, oil on canvas board, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.