Horace Pippin was an African American folk painter known for his depictions of African American life and of the horrors of war. Horace Pippin was called a folk artist because he had no formal art training. He used bright colors, flat shapes, and straight lines. He did not use shading or complicated perspective. His art is also called primitive, naive, or innocent. The injustice of slavery and American segregation figure prominently in many of his works.
Horace Pippin was born February 22, 1888, just twenty-three years after the Civil War and the end of slavery. His grandparents were slaves, and his parents were domestic workers. Pippin's childhood was spent in Goshen, New York, a town that sometimes appears in his paintings. Pippin liked to draw and would illustrate his spelling words in school. But his family could not afford art materials. At age ten, he won a box of crayons in a magazine drawing contest and started coloring. He left school at age fourteen to help his family. He was variously employed as an ironworker, junk dealer, and porter.
In 1917 Horace Pippin joined the army and fought France during World War I. After spending fourteen months fighting in the trenches, Pippin was severely wounded in his right arm, and Doctors concerned the arm to be useless. Pippin received the Croix de Guerre for bravery and, following his return to the United States, married Jennie Featherstone Wade in 1920. Horace Pippin struggled to find work with his injured arm. At the age of forty Pippin found a way, even with his crippled right hand, to draw on wood using a hot poker. He made many burnt-wood art panels. Pippin decided to try painting with oil. He used his "good" left hand to guide his crippled right hand, which held the paintbrush, across the canvas. It took him three years to finish his first painting End of the War-Starting Home.
Pippin followed up with numerous other paintings depicting the negative side of the war including Shell Holes and Observation Balloon and multiple paintings entitled Holy Mountain.
Horace Pippin's most beloved art themes centered on the African American life and its historic figures. As a Black American, he took an interest in historical figures he felt had impacted his life, and he painted both Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.
One of his best known works, Horace Pippin's Self portrait of 1941 shows him seated in front of an easel, cradling his brush in his right hand (shown above). His painting of John Brown Going to his Hanging (shown here) is in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After the art world discovered Pippin in 1937, these pictures in particular brought him wide acclaim as the greatest black painter of his time. He enjoyed the enthusiastic support of art collectors Christian Brinton, Albert C. Barnes, and Edith Halpert, owner of the New York Gallery in New York City.
In 1938, when he was around 50, the Museum of Modern Art included four of Pippin's paintings in a traveling museum show. He took art classes for the first time. Pippin became more and more well-known. Galleries showed his paintings, and museums began to buy his work. He made 75 paintings during the last years of his life.
Among Pippin's works are many genre paintings, such as the Domino Players, in the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., and several versions of Cabin in the Cotton. His portraits include a depiction of the contralto Marian Anderson singing, painted in 1941. He also painted landscapes and religious subjects.
In 1947 critic Alain Locke described Horace Pippin as "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so uniquely as almost to defy classification."