Horace Pippin (1888-1946)
Pippin was born in 1888 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. At the age of three, he moved to New York with his family, where he attended a segregated one-room school. Pippin showed an interest in making art at an early age. When he was ten years old, he answered a magazine advertisement and received a box of crayon pencils, paint, and two brushes. In 1903, Pippin left school to take care of his ailing mother, who died in 1911. After working a series of jobs, he joined the army in 1917 and fought in France during World War I. During the war, he kept illustrated journals about his experiences. He received the prestigious French Croix de Guerre and the American Purple Heart, but his right arm was crippled from injuries by the time he left the army in 1919.
Once he returned to the United States, Pippin married and returned to West Chester with his new wife, Jennie. Although he could no longer draw with his injured right arm, he turned instead to other forms of artistic expression, including oil painting and burnt-wood techniques known as pyrography. He used art as a therapeutic outlet for his memories of war. He completed his first oil painting about the war in 1931, and this work jumpstarted his career as an artist.
Pippin was the first African-American painter to explore experiences of war and social-political injustices in his art. His works were celebrated for their detailed, intricate compositions as well as their striking and relevant themes. He completed dozens of works over the course of his career and became well-known and respected not only in West Chester but across the country. He was the first African-American to have paintings accepted by the West Chester County Art Association, and the organization’s president—scholar and collector Christian Brinton—noted his importance, as did painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth. After his work was included in a traveling group exhibit with the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, Pippin’s reputation spread down the East Coast. In 1939, the Robert Carlen Galleries of Philadelphia became his dealer. The following year, he received his first formal art classes and was invited to give lectures at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He was also featured in prominent publications such as Newsweek and Vogue.
Pippin’s most famous works including a series of paintings about the abolitionist John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln. He also painted themes based on the Bible and the work of fellow artist Edward Hicks in addition to scenes of everyday life for African-Americans in the early twentieth century. Pippin died of a stroke in 1946. Major exhibitions of his work have continued to be curated after his death by institutions such as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.