Black History: Special Delivery!!
Horace Pippin (1888 – 1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As a small child, he moved with his family to Goshen, New York. Born just 23 years after emancipation and the civil war, his grandparents were enslaved. His parents were domestic workers. Pippin was a self taught artist whose only formal training was a few art classes that he took as an adult. Early in life, he developed a love for art and creative expression. In fact, Pippin would “illustrate” his spelling words. The family did not have the financial resources to buy art supplies. When he was 10 years old, Pippin won a box of crayons as part of an art contest. Though he was limited in terms of having art materials, his talent was recognized within his community. Due to his mother’s poor health, he left school at age 15 to work and support his family. He worked various jobs including, being employed on a farm, working as a hotel porter, and in a factory.
In 1917, Pippin enlisted in the Military as part of the 369th African American Infantry Unit, known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. The 369th was known for their bravery. The unit was given France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. While serving in the war, Pippin was shot, which caused him to use the function of his right arm. He returned from the war in 1919. In 1920 he married Jennie Wade. The couple had one son. Due to his injury, it was difficult for him to find work. Working odd jobs, he barely made a living.
Undeterred by his injury, at the age of 47, Pippin would eventually use a poker to uphold his right arm so that he could paint as a therapeutic outlet. He was able to draw on wood with a hot poker. He used his left arm to guide his right hand. He then decided to try painting with oil. It took three years for him to finish his first painting. His first work of art after the war was “Losing The Way”, completed in 1930. After his artwork was displayed in a county art show, he became part of a traveling group exhibit with the Museum of Modern Art in 1938. He was approximately 50 years old at the time. This opened the door for his work to be featured in other exhibits. Some of his well known pieces include: Domino Players (1943), Harmonizing (1944), Christ and the Woman of Samaria.
In one of his paintings, “John Brown Going To His Hanging”, Pippin is believed to have drawn on a family legend that his grandmother had been at Harper’s Ferry for the execution of John Brown. It is believed that the woman staring out of the painting at the bottom right corner, is his grandmother. It is also believed, that this depiction is Pippin’s way of reflecting his family connection to the event. While many whites were ambivalent, even supportive of Brown’s execution; the placement of his grandmother may demonstrate a form of protest, and perhaps even rebuke. The painting draws its viewers in and makes them part of the crowd that viewed Brown’s execution.
Pippin also painted memories of being a soldier as well as scenes from his childhood. He was referred to as a folk artist because he did not have formal training. Pippin used bright colors, flat shapes and straight lines in his work. In describing his approach to art, Pippin stated, “Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead”. Pippin had a diverse group of patrons who purchased his work; individual collectors, museums, and Hollywood celebrities. The popularity of his artwork seemed to grow quickly during the last years of his life. This quick rise to fame took its toll on Pippin and his wife. His wife suffered from mental illness and he also began to drink heavily.
Pippin died at the age of 58 in 1946. He created 140 pieces art; 75 of which were created during the final year of his life. At the time of his death, the New York times referred to Pippin as the “most important Negro painter” to have appeared in America.