PHILADELPHIA — Horace Pippin (1888–1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, less than 25 years after the Civil War ended. He grew up in the village of Goshen, New York, 50 miles northwest of Manhattan, and attended segregated schools. For this reason, the seemingly neutral description of Pippin as a self-taught artist should be seen through the lens of America’s policy of segregation and government-maintained racial discrimination. The chances of Pippin attending a White-run art school were practically nonexistent during his lifetime. He was self-taught out of necessity, as the society in which he lived had shut most of its doors on him.
Before Pippin enlisted in the segregated Black and Puerto Rican 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed by the Germans the “Harlem Hellfighters,” he worked in a coal yard, as a hotel porter, and as a used-clothing peddler. The 369th Infantry Regiment became a distinct unit within the French army because White American army units would not fight alongside them; while in the unit, Pippin was seriously wounded in combat and received France’s Croix de Guerre. Shot in his right arm by a German sniper, he left the army and returned to West Chester, where he took up art as a therapy.
Due to his injury, Pippin had to move his right arm with his left arm, while holding the brush in his right hand. Through this method, he learned to paint. In 1931, after working in various mediums, including pyrography, he completed his first oil painting. Between 1931 and his death in 1946, he completed around 140 paintings. Many dealt with his experience as a soldier in World War I and the racism and segregation he encountered after returning to America, which — despite the contributions of Black soldiers — did not change.
Within a short period of time, Pippin’s oil paintings gained attention. Among his fans were the painter and illustrator N. C. Wyeth and the art critic and collector Christian Brinton. In 1939, the Robert Carlen Galleries of Philadelphia began to represent him.
These are just some of the reasons why you should see the ongoing exhibition Horace Pippin: From War to Peace at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and curated by Jessica Todd Smith, The Susan Gray Detweiler Curator of American Art and manager of the Center for American Art. The exhibition includes only five paintings and one study in oil, but each is rewarding to look at, and together they offer viewers a glimpse into American history.
Pippin was a remarkably inventive artist. “The Ending of the War, Starting Home” (1930-33), is a frontal view of German soldiers behind barriers and barbed wire. One soldier’s arms are raised, as if he is about to surrender. A burning biplane — technically too big in scale but right for this scene — is diving headfirst toward the ground, while a row of aerial explosions hovers just above the horizon. Pippin, who fought in brutal trench warfare, painted the scene from memory.
What makes this painting into more than a view of war is the artist’s wide handmade frame. The frame is blistered, as if he went over it with a flame that caused the paint to crack and separate. The hand-carved objects protruding, relief-like, from it include various kinds of ordinance (shells and hand grenades, which were nicknamed “potato mashers” and “pineapples” because of their shapes), a tank, rifles, and helmets. There are neither heroes nor leaders in this painting, and the scene is not meant to inspire patriotism. Rater than offering a message, it tries to transport the viewer to the front lines of trench warfare.
In “Mr. Prejudice” (1943), Pippin groups 13 figures around a giant V, which dominates the upper part of the painting. Facing away from each other, two seated workers in white uniforms flank the bottom of the V. Meanwhile, a White, bare-chested man stands within the V, wielding a huge hammer and driving a stake into its vertex, attempting to split the letter into two parts. A hooded Klansmen stands behind the right side of the V, while just below him is a man in a red shirt, holding a noose. Below the V are various members of the armed figures, segregated into Black and White groups. Pippin has included himself as a soldier with the other Black soldiers, his right arm dangling at his side.
The painting was completed in 1943, two years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the 1941 executive order (number 8802) outlawing discrimination in wartime industries. Having fought in a segregated regiment in World War I and come back to a country that made no attempt to end segregation, effectively denying the contribution of Black soldiers, Pippin recognized that Black people were engaged in a double war, fighting fascism and segregation. And while the scope of this double war has changed for Blacks, people of color, and immigrants, it certainly has not ended, nearly two decades into the 21st century.
At no point in these two works does Pippin present himself as a victim of segregation, and yet he was affected by its strictures throughout his life, even after he gained acceptance as an artist. I thought about this when looking at “The Getaway” (1939), which depicts a fox running through the snow, carrying a black-feathered fowl in its mouth. In the distance are farm buildings, sheds, and a gray, frozen stream or path.
I kept thinking that Pippin must identify with the fox. As a successful artist, he might have felt he had gotten away with something, because he was a Black man living a White world. What he got away with was survival — being able to live and experience the joy of painting what he knew to be true.
This is why his last completed painting, “The Park Bench” (1946), is so touching. A Black man is sitting alone on a park bench in front of trees and grass. An white animal, maybe a dog or rabbit, is on the right side, on the grass between the trees. The man does not notice; he is gazing at the ground, but seemingly looking inward. Behind him is part of an empty red bench. A feeling of peace emanates from him. Pippin’s life, all he had to endure and the obstacles he overcame, makes the painting into a testimony to his perseverance and his belief in his audience and, ultimately, in art.
Horace Pippin: From War to Peace at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is ongoing.