Treasures from the Vault: Horace Pippin

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Today, when people think about becoming an artist, they might consider getting a fine arts degree from a university or an art school.  There have been a number of self-taught artists, however, who have received national acclaim, including Grandma Moses, Edward Hicks (known for his Peaceable Kingdom), Bill Traylor, and Horace Pippin. We hold works by many self-taught artists, including Horace Pippin.

Despite having no formal training in art, Pippin was included in a group exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1938.  Less than a decade later, Pippin’s work was shown in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  The Whitney Museum of American Art acquired a painting from Pippin’s second solo exhibition in 1941.

Pippin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in close proximity to Philadelphia.  Not long after, he and his mother moved to Goshen, New York, a rural community close to relatives and where she worked as a domestic.  When Pippin was 14 he worked on a farm where the owner discovered his artistic talent and offered to send him to school so he could study art.  Unfortunately, his mother fell ill and the teenager worked a series of jobs to support them.  When she died, Pippin left for New Jersey.    

In 1917, Pippin enlisted and served for 14 months during World War I in the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters.  Even in the trenches he maintained journals with drawings.  Pippin was on the front lines in the battles of Belleau Wood, France and Argonne Forest, France.  He was shot in his right shoulder by a German sniper.  Pippin received the French Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for bravery, and the Purple Heart.

After the war Pippin relocated to West Chester and married in 1920.  His injury from the war left him unable to raise his arm past his shoulder.  At first, Pippin drew on the lids of cast-off cigar boxes with charcoal.  He also began making what were called burnt wood panels.  Astonishingly, Pippin used a hot poker to draw lines on wood with his right hand that was supported by his crossed knee.  He could not work for long periods of time, but this exercise became good therapy for him physically and as an artist. 

In 1930 at the age of 40 he completed his first painting, The End of the War: Starting Home.  By now he could hold a brush by relying on his left hand to help prop up and steady his right wrist.  At times he would paint at his easel in stretches up to 17 hours.  For the most part, his works generally measured less than 25 x 30” and were slow to create, due to his laborious painting process. 

Pippin’s art remained known only amongst family, friends, and the community where he lived.  His luck would change when the Chester County Art Association exhibited two of his pieces in their annual exhibition in 1937, which also featured works by Andrew Wyeth and Ralston Crawford.  Pippin caught the attention of N.C. Wyeth, who was a juror for the exhibition, and who helped orchestrate a solo exhibition for Pippin at the West Chester Community Center that opened just two days after the close of the art association show.   A couple of months later, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) inquired about his work.  The artist experienced what is be best described as a meteoric rise in national interest and recognition.  

Pippin’s paintings cover the range of human experience with scenes from American history, war, the Bible, literature, and Black life.  His bold use of color and form has a modernist sensibility.  In the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s painting entitled Uncle Tom, Pippin uses characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) for its subject.  Stowe was inspired by her familiarity with slavery, the work of abolitionists, and the Underground Railroad.  Her story helped foster an antislavery sentiment in the North. The manuscript originally appeared in a 40-week serial in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era.  When it was published as a book, it sold 3,000 copies the first day and 500,000 copies within five years in the United States. People also became familiar with the story in the form of plays and silent films, released in five different versions.

Horace Pippin's painting features an African American man sitting on a cut log bench in a glade with yellow flowers. He holds a White child on his lap, and trees and a blue sky cover the background. The artists signature is in the bottom right hand corner. The paint is thick, each brushstroke evident on the canvas.
Horace Pippin, American, 1888-1946. Uncle Tom. Oil on canvas, 1944. Gift of Larry Eberbach, 1984.11. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In the painting, Uncle Tom sits gently holding the slumbering Little Eva.  In the story, Tom develops a close friendship with the frail Eva St. Clare, the young daughter of his owner.  Some writers have observed that Pippin departs from the compositions used in the book’s illustrations and other artists’ renditions of the subject.  Typically, when the two are paired, Eva plays the active protagonist by reading to Tom, discussing the Bible, or playfully donning him with flowers.  Instead, Pippin depicts a nurturing relationship, making Eva the vulnerable child and the elder Tom her protector.

Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Uncle Tom has been included in two major exhibitions focusing on the artist: I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, a traveling exhibition in 1994-95 organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Horace Pippin: The Way I See It, organized in 2015 by the Brandywine River Museum, located about ten miles away from his West Chester home.

Come visit Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment to see works from the FWMoA collection!

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