Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Artistic reputations are – much like the stock market – hard to assess, and harder yet to predict. Such is the case with the career of Horace Pippin (1888-1946), a self-taught African American painter who lived in West Chester in southeastern Pennsylvania. An artist of national standing by the early 1940s, Pippin had made a meteoric rise from the local renown of his Chester County debut in 1937.

Within six years, Pippin’s paintings were in the collec­tions of such diverse luminaries as Main Line collector Albert C. Barnes, statesman W. Averell Harriman, and playwright Clifford Odets. Pippin had garnered prizes at prestigious annual exhibitions organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, enjoyed solo shows in Chicago and San Francisco, and seen his works purchased by such public institutions as New York’s Whitney Museum, Washington’s Phillips Collec­tion and the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. Sadly, Horace Pippin died in 1946, only nine years after his first exhibition.

Since his death, Pippin’s broad public visibility has faded although the African American arts community and lovers of folk art have never forgotten him. If asked to name a celebrated self-taught artist, most Americans would likely cite Grandma Moses. Like Pippin., who had his first gallery show at the age of fifty­-two, Anna Mary Robertson, known as Grandma Moses, made her debut in New York in 1940. The spry elderly widow, twenty-eight years Pippin’s senior, went on to attract a popular following that her death in 1961 scarcely diminished.

It’s not merely by chance that the work of Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses was favored by Americans in the 1940s. During wartime, commerce with Europe was a challenge, and it became both patriotic and practical to search out indigenous talent. Unschooled artists were thought particularly to embody a distinctly American spirit. A decade earlier, the native scene painters had been celebrated as exemplars of the American spirit. Yet despite their successes, the regionalists never displaced the preemi­nence of European artists within the New York art world.

In 1940, the Bignou Gallery, a reputable venue, gave Horace Pippin the honor of being, in the words of a West Chester newspaper writer, “the first American, regardless of race, to be represented by a one-man show in the exclusive New York gallery, where, heretofore, only the work of such foreign masters as Renoir and Matisse was shown.”

Many of those who ad­mired Pippin’s painting in the 1940s firmly believed that his intuitive genius for composi­tion, color, and form rivaled the expressive power of the well-known modernist masters. Pippin’s style was understood to have resulted from “an inner vision of burning intensity,” according to one critic, who agreed with Barnes’ favorable comparison of Pippin to the French masters Honoré Daumier, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. The history of twentieth century art records that by the end of the decade, a school of American artists, called abstract expressionists, had successfully triumphed over the hegemony of the European masters – but that’s another story.

This story, the story of Horace Pippin, begins on February 22, 1888, in West Chester, where he was born into a family of laborers and domestic servants who were descendants of slaves. Harriet Pippin (1834-1908), the woman he regarded as his mother, was from West Virginia, and her first-hand description of the trial of abolitionist John Brown, who had led the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 (see “Madman or Saint? Abolitionist John Brown” by Mark Peaster in the summer 1987 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage), was part of the family’s oral history. When Pippin later painted John Brown Going to His Hanging (1942), he included a distinc­tive portrait of an African American woman witness, surely a depiction of the young Harriet.

In 1891, the Pippin family relocated to take up work in the resort town of Goshen, New York. As a boy, Horace showed a strong interest in drawing, winning his first set of crayons and a box of watercolors for his response to an advertising contest by an art supply company. Goshen was home to a celebrated harness race track, and as a youngster Pippin made drawings of the horses and drivers. He attended a segregated, one room school­house until 1902, when at age fourteen, he left to help support the family. Harriet Pippin died in 1908, and by 1912 he had relocated to Paterson, New Jersey, where he worked for a moving-and­-storage company. He relished the task of crating oil paint­ings, which first exposed him to fine art. Prior to 1917, Pippin variously toiled in a coal yard, in an iron foundry, as a hotel porter, and as a used-clothing peddler.

For Horace Pippin, World War I “brought out all the art in me.” In 1917 the twenty­-nine year old Pippin enlisted in the Fifteenth Regiment of the New York National Guard, serving as a corporal in what would subsequently become the 369th Colored Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division of the United States Army. Landing in Brest in December 1917, Pippin and his regiment first laid railroad tracks before serving at the front lines under French command, in the Argonne Forest. While in the trenches, Pippin kept illus­trated journals of his military service (from which six drawings survive). In October 1918, a German sniper shot Pippin in the right shoulder. After fourteen months of service, he was honorably discharged the following year.

On November 21, 1920, Pippin married the twice­-widowed Jennie Fetherstone Wade Giles, who was four years older than the artist and had a six-year-old son. Supporting themselves on his disability check and her work as a laundress, they settled in West Chester, where Jennie owned a house. Community­-spirited, Pippin helped organize a Black Boy Scout troop and a drum-and-bugle corps for the local American Legion post for African American veterans, of which he served as a commander.

As therapy for his injured right arm, which he could not raise above shoulder height, Pippin began using charcoal to decorate discarded cigar boxes. In 1925, he began burning images on wood panels using a hot iron poker, and was delighted with the results. “It brought me back to my old self!” he exclaimed. In 1928, at the age of forty, he expanded to oil pigments, painting with his right hand propped up by his left.

A tall, genial man, with an easy sense of humor and a profound religious spirit, Pippin pursued his avocation in his spare time, often painting at night in his parlor. He worked on his first painting, The End of the War: Starting Home (1930), for three years. Never again would he put so many layers of thick paint on his surfaces, nor would he whittle images on a frame, as he did here to show World War I materials. When later asked by a reporter for Time why he depicted the Germans with their hands raised, he simply explained: “They had to quit before we could go home.”

Recent scholarship has documented approximately one hundred and forty works executed between 1930 and 1946 by Horace Pippin. During the thirties, he tackled a variety of subjects in addition to war scenes, including regional landscapes, such as Fishing in the Brandywine: Early Fall (1932); historical vignettes, such as Abraham Lincoln and His Father Building Their Cabin on Pigeon Creek (1934); and memory pictures, such as After Supper, West Chester (1935), a charming intergenerational, interracial view of turn-of-the­-century West Chester.

Although shopkeepers in his hometown would occasion­ally hang his works in their stores, he first attracted the attention of the local art community when two of his paintings were awarded honorable mention at the Chester County Art Association’s 1937 annual exhibition. Local art critic and collector Christian Brinton, who invited Pippin to submit his works to the jury, is credited as Pippin’s “discov­erer.” The art association drew upon an unusually talented group of exhibitors that year; the young Andrew Wyeth earned second prize and Ralston Crawford third place.

The Chester County Art Association exhibition intro­duced Pippin’s work to the well-known artist and illustrator who headed the jury, Newell Convers Wyeth, patriarch of the prodigious Brandywine River Valley family of artists. Speaking at the opening of a one person exhibition of seventeen of Pippin’s works that he and Brinton organized immedi­ately after the art association’s exhibition, Wyeth proclaimed that the unschooled artist produced “some of the purest expression I have seen in a long time, and I would give my soul to be as naive as he is.”

Within a year, New York’s Museum of Modern Art included four of Pippin’s paintings in Masters of Popular Painting, a group show that reflected the art world’s exploding interest in contem­porary self-taught artists. In spring 1939, New York art dealer Hudson Walker began to carry Pippin’s work in his gallery, thanks to a suggestion from artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, a Chester County resident. For Sparhawk-Jones, Pippin was “one of the few real artists in our century,” as she described him a few years later.

It was to Walker’s gallery that Christian Brinton brought Philadelphia art dealer Robert Carlen to see Pippin’s work several months later. Carlen saw the mastery – and the magic – of Pippin’s imagery immediately. The business and personal relationships forged between Horace Pippin and Robert Carlen would prove to be enduring. Carlen immedi­ately arranged an exhibition for Pippin in his gallery for January 1940, and introduced the artist to collector Albert C. Barnes, who wrote the accompanying exhibition catalogue essay. In his essay, Barnes lauded Pippin and the self-taught Pittsburgh painter John Kane and awarded them the distinction of creating “the most individual and unadul­terated painting authentically expressive of the American spirit that has been produced in our generation.”

Pippin visited Barnes’ renowned collection of modern art and attended lectures at the Barnes Founda­tion in Merion that winter. He reportedly admired Pierre Auguste Renoir, once com­menting with characteristic humor, “That guy Ren-oor, he was pretty good. And he left a little bit for me too.” Looking at a Renoir at another time, he told Violette de Mazia, Barnes’ associate, “I’m going to take colors out of that man’s painting and get them into mine.”

His exposure to the works of art in Barnes’ collection triggered his fascination for colorful floral still lifes, of which he painted at least two dozen between 1940 and 1946. Although Pippin once told Edward Loper, an African American painter, that, contrary to the abstractionists, he “painted things exactly the way I see it,” he often depicted fanciful decorations on his flower vases. These decora­tions ranged from the sober aircraft and armed soldiers in Victory Vase (1942) to the earnest dumpling of a woman who buries her nose in a book in Summer Flowers with Two Chairs (1944).

When he first saw Pippin’s work in 1940, not only did Barnes buy a painting for himself, but he also encour­aged de Mazia to purchase Birmingham Meeting House I (1940); on his suggestion, a friend, actor Charles Laughton, purchased Cabin in the Cotton (1935). Thanks to Barnes and the efforts of Carlen, a tireless advocate of Pippin’s achievements, Pippin’s paintings were acquired by major museums and such Hollywood patrons as John Garfield, Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson, Sam Jaffe, and Albert Lewin. “Theatrical people are Pippin’s most ardent collectors,” an art journal in 1944 commented, “and about 13 of them are standing in line for Pippin’s next paintings.”

During the forties, Horace Pippin produced ten to twelve paintings each year. He would occasionally return to earlier subjects, creating informal, thematically-linked series. His sources were varied; images might be inspired from a motion picture, such as Cabin in the Cotton; by an insurance calendar reproduction, such as The Elk (1945); or by the lyrics of a well-known song, such as Old Black Joe (1943), a painting commissioned for a national advertising campaign by a radio manufacturer. His portraits might be done from life, including Portrait of My Wife (1936); from memory, characterized by Paul B. Dague, Deputy Sheriff of Chester County (1936); or from photographs, typified by Marian Anderson I (1941).

Pippin favored the theme of maternal affection in a number of his popular genre paintings. In humble domestic interiors of a bygone era, Pippin portrayed African American mothers lovingly bathing their children, serving them breakfast on Christmas morning, and presiding over their prayers. In Domino Players (1943), a portrait of his own family circle, Pippin depicted himself as a youthful onlooker while a keen-eyed, pipe-smoking woman matches wits in a game against a younger woman. The delightful still life of fabric scraps, spools and scissors that lie at the feet of a nearby quilter reveals the artist to be an acute observer of women’s tradi­tional handiwork and traditional skills.

Pippin often used textiles in his compositions to convey vibrant visual messages. His women wear dotted shirt­waists, striped dresses, and checkered aprons. Red beams out to viewers from men’s union suits and from women’s head cloths. Braided rugs and quilts are highly important objects in his cozy interiors. Sensitive to regional and racial variations in women’s work, he depicts a white woman stitching a log cabin-style coverlet in Quaker Mother and Child (circa 1944), while the Black youngster in Interior, painted the same year, is seated on a gaily colored throw that reveals the playful inventiveness of African American quilt patterns.

His 1942 series of paintings about the fiery abolitionist John Brown, as well as the Abraham Lincoln paintings he did in 1942 and 1943, attests to Pippin’s abiding interest in the history of the emancipation. These works were executed during World War II, at a time when African Americans were again fighting for their country – in segregated regiments. Race riots that erupted in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943 were the most visible indication of America’s increasing racial tensions in the first half of the 1940s. Pippin created relatively few paintings that addressed the abuses of slavery or the effects of racial prejudice during this period; two of these were The Whipping (1941) and the well­-known Mr. Prejudice (1943). (In Mr. Prejudice, a commissioned work, a decidedly dark skinned Statue of Liberty and a malevolent Klansman watch from opposite sides as the “V” for allied victory is under­mined by the forces of intolerance. Below this, an African American sailor and a Caucasian pilot extend their hands in friendship before a segregated assembly of Black and white machinists and soldiers.)

Horace Pippin was greatly troubled by national and global events. “The world is in a bad way at this time. I mean war. And men have never loved one or another. There is trouble every place you go today,” he wrote in April 1945, a year before his death. His comments, addressed “To My Dear Friends,” are part of his response to a request to explain the imagery in one of his most haunting and original works, The Holy Mountain, of which he created three versions. “Then one thinks of peace … ” he continued. “Can there be peace, yes there will be – peace, so I looked at Isaiah Xl-6-10. There I found that there will be peace. I went over it 4 or 5 times in my mind. Every time I read it I got a new thought on it. So I went to work.”

As it so happened, Robert Carlen, Pippin’s representative and dealer, was the leading proponent for the work of Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1770-1849), who had com­pleted numerous paintings based on Isaiah’s prophecy, now known throughout the world as the artist’s Peaceable Kingdom paintings. With the example of Hicks as a possible impetus, and his own medita­tions on the text as sustaining inspiration, Pippin created a deeply moving vision of a time “when the wolf will dwell with the lamb … and a little child shall lead them.”

Pippin concluded his explanation by addressing the non-biblical scenes of combat, lynching, and graves that he had included in the back­ground landscape. “Now my picture would not be complete of today if the little ghost-like memory did not appear in the left of the picture. As the men are dying, today the little crosses tell us of them in the first world war and what is doing in the south today-all of that we are going through now. But there will be peace.” The date of D-Day, June 6, 1944, is painted on one version; another bears the date of December 7, 1944, the third anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor; and a third was completed on August 9, the day the Ameri­cans dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki.

In Pippin’s day, the adjective “primitive,” which literally denoted the earliest stage or the beginning of things, was used to describe such diverse arenas as early American limners, French and Italian thirteenth-century painting, African art and artifacts, Northwest Coast Indian art, and contemporary unschooled artists. To a critic writing in the New Yorker in 1941, Pippin was “incontest­ably in the very front rank of modern primitive painters, here or abroad.” But he added that “Pippin’s skill and resourcefulness have pro­gressed to the point at which it is hardly proper to call him a primitive at all.”

The benign art world usage of such adjectives as “naive,” “primitive,” and “instinctive” notwithstanding, there is little question that the terms could convey racial overtones when employed by some commenta­tors to describe Pippin. After one of Pippin’s works earned a prize at the 1944 Carnegie International, a Pittsburgh critic wrote: “Whether this particular picture is worthy of the $100 cash award is difficult to decide, as primitives are highly debatable. They are like ripe olives or mangoes – you like them or you don’t.”

Although Pippin’s paint­ings were generally well received by the press, some commentators felt that they had to denigrate the work of other artists in order to praise the unschooled Pippin. A review of his 1941 show at Carlen’s gallery was especially pointed. “Pippin’s work differs from that of the average American Negro painter trained in the schools. It is not a pale imitation of the white man’s art.” It is little wonder that a small group of academi­cally-trained African American artists in Philadelphia resented his successes.

The highly controversial Albert C. Barnes, whose modernist taste favored the self-taught over the academic, raised hackles in many quarters by once comparing Pippin to a well-known Black painter. “Henry O. Tanner is a pigmy and Horace Pippin is a giant. What Tanner had to say was simply a feeble echo of what had been said by great artists several centuries ago …. What Pippin has to say has never been said before. Pippin carries on the work of the great artists, but he expresses himself in his own language.”

Pippin’s visual language stripped away superficialities of appearance to reveal essential values, a process of abstraction. He was thought to be the equal of the self-taught French master Henri Rousseau, who was greatly admired by important European modern­ists such as Picasso. Tellingly, the African American philoso­pher and critic Alain Locke praised Pippin as a “modernistically abstract talent.”

But Horace Pippin’s success was short-lived.

On July 6, 1946, a house­keeper discovered that he had succumbed to a stroke. Pippin’s wife, who had been hospitalized earlier, passed away two weeks after his death. In an interview pub­lished only a month before he died, a humble Pippin was asked about his successes: “Now why do I want to get up so high? Leave that to some­body else. If I don’t go high, when I fall, if I do, I won’t have far to go.”

In the nearly fifty years since his demise, Pippin’s public recognition has risen and fallen, although his work never really went out of favor. Today, there are growing indications that more and more individuals and institu­tions acknowledge the abiding significance of his body of work. If the current market for Pippin’s paintings is any indication, the audience for his art has never been stronger.


“I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin,” on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Sunday, April 17 [1994], showcases nearly one hundred paintings, drawings, and burnt­wood panels, many of which have not been shown since his death in 1946 (see “Currents,” winter 1994). Following its Philadelphia debut, the exhibition will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (April 30-July 10 [1994]), the Cincinnati Art Museum (July 28-October 9 [1994]), the Baltimore Museum of Art (October 26-January 1, 1995), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 1-April 30, 1995). For more information, write: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19102; or telephone (215) 972-7600.


For Further Reading

Arkus, Leon Anthony. Three Self­-Taught Pennsylvania Artists: Hicks, Kane, Pippin. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute, 1966.

Barnes, Albert C. Horace Pippin Exhibition. Philadelphia: Carlen Galleries, 1940.

____. Recent Paintings by Horace Pippin. Philadelphia: Carlen Galleries, 1941.

Bearden, Romare. Horace Pippin. Washington, D. C.: The Phillips Collection, 1972.

Crispo, Andrew. Four American Primitives: Edward Hicks, John Kane, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, Horace Pippin. New York: ACA Galleries, 1972.

Fine, Elsa. The Afro-American Artist. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1982.

Hammond, Leslie King. We Wear the Mask: The Ethos of Spirituality in African American Art, 1750 to the Present. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Locke, Alain. The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1971.

Pippin, Horace. “Horace Pippin Explains His Holy Mountain.” Art Digest. 19, 13 (April 1, 1945).

Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art. 1943. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Rodman, Selden. Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America. New York: Quadrangle Press, 1947.


Judith E. Stein, a New York native, studied at Barnard College and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her doctorate in art history. A resident of Philadelphia since 1965, she formerly taught at Temple University, and was an arts reviewer for National Public Radio. Since 1981 she has been associated with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she organized “Red Grooms: A Retrospective,” “The Figurative Fifties: New York School Figurative Expressionism,” and exhibitions of contemporary works of art. A freelance writer, her reviews and articles often appear in Art in America, Art News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She organized a landmark exhibition entitled “I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin” for the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts, which is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work.