Horace Pippin painted the memories that lingered. Some were terrifyingly painful. Others recalled the ease of a lazy Sunday morning breakfast. Of his approximately 130 works, the Philadelphia Museum of Art owns several, which include his first and his last paintings.
It’s not a typical story: Pippin had no formal art training and created his first oil painting at age forty-two. Only eight years later, four of his paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. His body of work expressed his concerns about social and political issues and documented the lives of black Americans during and between the two World Wars.
Horace Pippin (1888 – 1946), the grandson of enslaved African Americans, was born in rural West Chester, Pennsylvania, twenty-three years after the end of the Civil War. Fought over the issues of slavery and states’ rights, the country was only beginning the long, painful process of defining the meaning and practice of freedom in America. “Jim Crow” laws mandated racial segregation in almost every aspect of public life and deepened economic, social, and political oppression. Pippin entered into the realities of adulthood in the seventh grade when he left school to take care of his dying mother and then took an array of jobs to help support his family.
When America entered World War I (1914 – 1918) in 1917, hundreds of thousands of black American men, including twenty-nine-year-old Horace Pippin, were determined to demonstrate their capabilities in service of their country and registered for military service.
The military’s all-white leadership banned black men from the Marines, and they could only serve as laborers in the Navy. Assignments in the Army were rigidly segregated and severely limited. Pippin, who enlisted in the all-black 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, was shipped to France to construct railroad yards, build roads, unload ships, clear swamps, and dig graves for the U.S. Army.
In April 1918, when the French army in Argonne needed men to replenish their exhausted and depleted armies, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force assigned the unit, now known as the 369th Infantry, to a French commander who “had experience commanding colonial African troops”.
Treated as equals, the French replaced their substandard equipment and organized instruction in trench construction, use of weapons, and preparations for a gas attack. The 369th prevailed: they spend more time in continuous battle than any other American unit – 191 days in the trenches in several key battles along the Western Front, never losing a man through capture or a foot of ground to the enemy.
Several weeks before the end of the war, during an Allied offensive that stretched along Western Front, Pippin was shot in the right shoulder by a sniper.
His entire regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters”, received the French Croix de Guerre military decoration for distinguished acts of heroism during combat.
And then they came home into the realities of life as an African American World War I veteran.
Denied equal protection under the law, racial tensions were high. “The Red Summer of 1919” was violently consumed by race riots, the lynching of black veterans, and a resurgence of white supremacist ideology.
Pippin, his right arm paralyzed, was unable to find work as a manual laborer. He and his new wife subsisted on his disability check and took in laundry.
Disenfranchised and suffering from periods of depression, Pippin began to write about and illustrate the memories that lingered. Using his left hand to steady his right hand that held a pencil or crayon, he filled pages of notebooks with stories of the unbearable sight of watching soldiers die while entangled in barbed wire, of the thick blue fog of poisonous gas, of surviving an exchange of machine gun crossfire that killed all but four men in his platoon, of life in the lice- and rat-infested trenches,
of being shot in the right shoulder by a sniper, and then of being pinned down all night on the battlefield by the fallen body of a French soldier who was shot in the head while trying to rescue him.
The physical challenge of writing was slow and frustrating, so Pippin devised a method of burning images onto discarded pieces of wood. After propping and balancing his immobile right arm on his crossed legs, he clasped a hot poker between his arm and his body and maneuvered the smoldering tip against the surface with his left hand and arm. He then completed the scene with house paint and varnish. (Bear Hunt One and Bear Hunt Two, both 1930; Chester County Historical Society)
Pippin moved to a larger scale, oil paint on canvas, and began a series of paintings about his memories of the war. “When I was a boy, I loved to make pictures, but it was the war that brought out all the art in me. . . . I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunsets. I came home with all of it in my mind.”
He worked on his first painting for three years. Although the event occurred while he was recuperating from his injury in a French hospital, it was one he had imagined many times in his mind, The End of the War, Starting Home.
Pippin’s story – an untrained artist and decorated war veteran turns to art as therapy – is remarkable, but that’s not only the reason why his body of work became well known. It was because of his artistic ability.
The scene is set in a starkly straightforward, almost flattened, perspective that places the viewer in the midst of a battlefield surrounded by violent chaos. Pippin’s use of color, line, and space emphasizes and obscures certain features in order to distract, focus, and heighten the viewer’s perception of the human dimension of war.
African American soldiers on patrol inch their way through a dense field of barbed wire toward the front line. German soldiers in pale uniforms emerge from trenches; one raises his arms and surrenders to a soldier carrying a bayonet.
Soldiers confront one another within the shadows of the restrained gray, brown, and black palette. One has just been shot and falls to the ground.
In contrast, the fallen body of an African American soldier almost dissolves into the dark, repeated flat pattern of the barbed wire fencing. The difficulty of distinguishing the African American soldiers in the painting may allude to the service of thousands of soldiers that remained unfairly dismissed when they returned home.
The thickly forested middle ground that obscures the possible dangers ahead illustrates Pippin’s technique of building layer upon layer of pigment to create certain effects. Each branch of every tree was created by meticulously layering over one hundred coats of paint; the resulting effect is dense and sculptural.
Pippin uses several techniques to balance the visual weight – the relationship of the size, color, and location – of each figure and object. For example, the color of the German soldiers’ uniforms visual connects them to the blue-grey sky; their arms point to the crashing, burning planes and multiple explosions on the horizon.
Imagine how the painting would change if three-quarters of the composition were an empty, bright sky.
Scattered bursts of red move the viewer’s eye throughout the canvas. Their random placement evokes danger and fear of the unknown amidst the chaos.
Pippin surrounded the entire scene with a painted frame of hand-carved French, British, and German helmets, guns, tanks, grenades, and other weapons. The use of mass-production to create automatic rifles and semi-automatic machine guns, tanks, submarines, and lethal gas led to the bloodiest war in human history – over thirty-five million civilian and military casualties.
Galvanized with a new sense of purpose, Pippin, an ardent pacifist, made a series of paintings about the war, not to sell or exhibit, but to feed a deep need within his soul.
Most of Pippin’s earliest work is lost and only his immediate circle of friends and family knew that he painted. Occasionally, Pippin offered his work to shopkeepers in lieu of payment. One of these, Cabin in the Cotton, was displayed in the window of a shoe repair shop and caught the attention of local art connoisseur and critic Christian Brinton and the artist N. C. Wyeth.
Brinton convinced Pippin to exhibit his works in a local art show, which garnered press attention, especially after actor Charles Laughton purchased the painting.
Within a short period of time, Philadelphian collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, noted black philosopher and critic Alain Locke, movie stars Claude Rains, John Garfield, and Edward G. Robinson became devoted collectors. In 1938, after four of his works were included in an exhibition at MoMA called “Masters of Popular Painting”, Time and Newsweek magazines wrote about his work, and soon his paintings appeared in exhibitions from coast to coast.
In the 1930s, the social and economic devastation the Great Depression led the American taste for art away from non-objective European Modernism and toward what was happening in the streets, fields and factories across the country. Homegrown subjects were seen as “democratic” art that was accessible and understandable to the general public. Pippin’s art, which reflected his personal experiences and concerns, fit in perfectly with era’s interest in authentic expression of the American spirit.
In addition to his memories of combat, Pippin’s works depict the struggle of black Americans for equality, figures in American history who opposed slavery, biblical themes,
and scenes of daily life in the African American community.
Several works that he created during World War Two (1939 – 1945), such as Deep Are the Roots (left; location unknown), the study for the painting Barracks (right, Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Mr. Prejudice (below) may not focus on combat, but comment entrenched racism.
Pippin completed his last painting several months before he died in 1946 of a stroke at the age of fifty-eight. Less than ten years had passed since he received national recognition. Describing the work, African American artist Romare Bearden said: “The man, I think, symbolizes Pippin himself, who, having completed his journey and his mission, sits wistfully, in the autumn of the year alone on a park bench.”
To honor Pippin’s artistic and social contributions, a vibrantly painted red bench offers a place to rest in Everhart Park, West Chester, PA.
Pippin and his wife died within two weeks of one another; an unfinished painting was left on his easel.
“My opinion of art is that a man should have love for it, because my idea is that he paints from his heart and mind.”
The “Jim Crow” collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation became illegal during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Prejudice, however, lingers.
– Meighan Maley
Philadelphia Museum of Art website
World War I military service abstract for Horace Pippin, Army service number 03722930 Service Record, New York State Archives
Horace Pippin: World War I Soldier, Narrator, and Artist; Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr.; Pennsylvania Legacies; Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 2017), pp. 12-19