Born in Pennsylvania, Horace Pippin worked several jobs and joined the army in 1917 before adopting an art career. Upon his return from service, he was badly injured in his right arm and turned to art as therapy. Horace Pippin was the first African-American self-taught painter whose works achieved national attention. Born in West Chester, he spent most of his childhood in New York and New Jersey. As a young man he worked as a hotel porter, mover, and iron molder. In 1917 he enlisted in the army and fought in the famous, all-black 369th Infantry regiment in France during World War I. In October, 1918, less than a month before the war ended, he was shot in the right shoulder. His service earned him the French Croix de Guerre, an honorable discharge, and a disability pension. This enabled him to live with his wife, Jennie Ora Featherstone Wade Giles, a laundress, and her son, in his hometown of West Chester for the rest of his life. There he joined the American Legion and served as commander of the town’s African-American post from 1925 to 1927. Pippin’s paintings of his house, the West Chester County Court House, his wife, and other local scenes and people convey one African American’s sense of security and affection for at least one small, predominantly white American town whose citizens encouraged his art.
Pippin’s artistic talent appeared early; as a ten-year-old he won a box of crayons in an art contest. “When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,�? he later wrote, but it was the war “that brought out all the art in me. . . . I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunsets. So I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.�? Most of Pippin’s earliest work is lost. Only one sketchbook remains from his numerous wartime drawings, which may be examined in his papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D. C. After the war, the handicapped Pippin devised a way of supporting his right hand with his left. Using a hot poker to burn in the outlines of his figures and objects onto wood (a technique called pyrography) and then filling them in, he was able to resume painting by the mid-1920s. He then began using oil paints. Local exhibitions and collectors brought him to the attention of Alain Locke, an important black philosopher and critic, the painter N.C. Wyeth – much of whose family’s work may be found at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford southeast of West Chester – and Dr. Albert F. Barnes, whose private museum in Merion houses one of the world’s most important collections of French impressionist and modern art. At first amazed that one of his paintings would sell for as much as $150, Pippin soon began showing his work in numerous exhibitions at galleries and in the nation’s leading art museums. Despite the disability that made painting difficult, he executed about 140 small canvases, in the last twenty years of his life.
He began painting in 1929 and never received any formal training. However he was one of America’s top primitive painters, often begin compared to Henri Rousseau. His subject matter ranged from his early depictions of trench warfare to historical, religious, and genre paintings, all executed with personal interpretations of those subjects.
Many of Pippin’s works deal with contemporary African-American life, depicting it with a tranquility, warmth, and quiet beauty. “The Domino Players" (1944) in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and “Christmas Morning, Breakfast,�? (1945), owned by the Cincinnati Museum of Art, are two of the many Pippins found outside of Pennsylvania. Others deal with religious topics; his moving rendering of Christ’s crucifixion and the three “Holy Mountain" paintings are especially beautiful. The latter are modeled on nineteenth-century Pennsylvania primitive artist Edward Hicks’ numerous paintings of “The Peaceable Kingdom, based on the prophesy of Isaiah, in which lions and other predators lie down with lambs and children. In some of these paintings Benjamin West’s “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians appear in the background. Pippin substitutes a black shepherd for the Christ child who brings the animals together, while a black boy plays with them in the foreground.
Scenes dealing with African-American history and the struggle for equality are among Pippin’s most powerful works. Paintings of the life of Abraham Lincoln and the trial and execution of John Brown implicitly invite comparison with the death of Christ. Two portraits of singer Marian Anderson are filled with the joy and affirmation of life the great African-American singer brought to her art. In “Mr. Prejudice" (1943; Philadelphia Museum of Art) Pippin created a powerful painting on race relations during the Second World War. Centered near the top of the painting a white worker with a sledge hammer is about to shatter the wartime “V�? for Victory, and in the process further dividing black and white Americans. Beneath the sharp point at the bottom of the “ a black and a white serviceman reach towards each other in respect and friendship."