Horace Pippin (1886-1946) was a prominent African American artist, primarily known for his self-taught “folk art” that eschewed academic training or modernist theories and largely sprang from his own learning and experiences. Born in Pennsylvania, he grew up in upstate New York and served in combat during the First World War with the U.S. 369th Infantry—the famed “Harlem Hellfighters”—losing the use of his right arm as a result of battle wounds. Initially turning to painting as a form of physical therapy, he was quickly noticed by art critics both in the context of “Afro-American art” (a thorny concept that was the subject of much debate in the 20s and 30s) as well as American Regionalism, most notably typified by the work of Midwesterners like Thomas Hart Benton.
I first noticed Pippin’s work during Thanksgiving 2017 on a visit to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in DC—in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery—one of the better-kept secrets of Washingtonian sights, not least for the immense collection of theoretically lesser works kept in open storage on the top floor (one ambition on my next visit is to give the latter a thorough going-over). Pippin’s Old Black Joe (above) was the only work of his I remember therefrom, but it was striking to see how individual and compelling it was even as its relative lack of obvious modernist sophistication evoked people like Grandma Moses (I was planning to start making my own path as a self-taught painter on my return to Michigan, so there may have been considerable specific inspiration at work).
That was my initial reaction, anyway. Greater familiarity with Pippin’s work over the ensuing year, though, made me a lot more appreciative. His interest in Biblical subjects struck a chord (I’m rereading the Bible right now, partly to get a better feel for where so many earlier artists came from, not to mention mining subjects for my own endeavors) and there’s a power to the simplicity that wasn’t immediately apparent on my first encounter with Old Black Joe. Above is Christ and the Woman of Samaria.
John Brown’s Hanging is my favorite of his. In terms of color use, composition, subject, it might be one of my favorite American paintings of the twentieth century. Brown fascinated a number of African American artists over the years (most famously, perhaps, Jacob Lawrence, some of whose prints thereof can still be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts), but Pippin actually painted his own take partly based on his own grandmother’s eyewitness account of the event. It’s awesome.