Horace Pippin. Self Portrait, 1944. Oil on canvas adhered to cardboard, 8 1/2" by 6 1/2". Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Horace Pippin. Self Portrait, 1944. Oil on canvas adhered to cardboard, 8 1/2″ by 6 1/2″. Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Horace Pippin (1888-1946), now one of the most renowned African American artists, began painting as physical therapy to recover from an arm injury sustained in World World I. This self-taught artist kept an illustrated journal of his war time experiences that would later inform his artwork.

During the onset of Pippin’s painting career in the 1930s, the lifestyle of the South was being explored and celebrated in media like George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess (1935), and the book Gone With the Wind (1936). It was during this period that Horace Pippin was discovered through his painting, Cabin in the Cotton.

The art critic and curator, Christian Brinton (1870-1942) and the illustrator, N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) spotted Cabin in the Cotton in the window of a shoe repair shop in Pippin’s home town, West Chester, Pennsylvania.  After the popular actor Charles Laughton purchased Cabin in 1940, Horace Pippin was on his way to becoming one of the most lauded American painters of the mid-twentieth century.

The range of subjects Pippin painted was diverse: interior scenes, portraits, landscapes and even a series of works about the abolitionist, John Brown (whose killing was allegedly seen by Pippin’s grandmother, a former slave).  It was his fortune that self-taught American painters and their “primitive” styles were in vogue in the 30s when Cabin in the Woods was discovered. Its saturated palette and thick, textured brushstrokes became typical of Pippin’s style.

Horace Pippin.  Cabin in the Cotton, 1933-37.  Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 18" by 33".  Art Institute of Chicago. 

Horace Pippin.  Cabin in the Cotton, 1933-37.  Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 18″ by 33″.  Art Institute of Chicago. 

According to the Art Institute of Chicago, the painting’s composition references the opening and closing scenes in a 1932 film starring Bette Davis and titled… Cabin in the Woods.  That same year, two popular singers, Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby, each produced his own version of a song of the same name.

I’d add “brilliant marketer” to Pippin’s list of talents!

Domino Players is one of the most famous paintings by Horace Pippin, and isa characteristically intimate interior setting.  By invoking childhood memories of every day life of his family and friends – as they played games, sewed, tended children, smoked – he offered a rare, insider’s glance into African American family life.  Here, a young boy, likely Pippin or his younger brother, peers directly at the viewer, pleading for sympathy with his boredom.  The cold neutral palette of the spartan room is punctuated by the colors of the quilt and the intense reds scattered throughout the painting.

Horace Pippin.  Domino Players, 1943.  Oil on composition board,  12 3/4" by 22".  Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Horace Pippin.  Domino Players, 1943.  Oil on composition board,  12 3/4″ by 22″.  Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

There is an undercurrent of ambiguity and danger here, too: the open scissors on the floor seem disproportionately scaled and the flames in the fire resemble pointed, sharp teeth.

Horace Pippin.  The Barracks, 1945.  Oil on canvas, 25 1/4" by 30".  Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Horace Pippin.  The Barracks, 1945.  Oil on canvas, 25 1/4″ by 30″.  Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Although different in mood than Domino Players, The Barracks shares a similar palette of “restrained colors, black, white, gray, with touches of red”, according to Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection.   It clearly references his stint in the New York 15th

National Guard, an African American unit that became the 369th Infantry Regiment after incorporation into the U. S. Army.

In The Barracks, Pippin captures the stark, claustrophobic life of the soldier while painfully reminding the viewer that even in war and national crisis, segregation prevailed.

Despite his recognition as one of the leading America painters of his time, Pippin’s total output comprised only about 140 paintings, mainly due to his immobile arm.  One of the last of these was his Self-Portrait (above, left), one of only two self portraits painted during his brief life of 56 years.

Question: Do you see lurking danger in the scissors and fire (and perhaps even in the jagged red flames of the oil lamp)?