Mysteries & Misadventures

Everything You Can Read About Horace Pippin Online Is Wrong, Here’s the Real Story

Horace Pippin has been one of my favorite artists since I was in art school. In our color theory classes they taught us through painting and I chose Horace as my artist to study and copy; I’d seen a few of his pieces at the local Brandywine River Museum and I liked them and thought they’d be simple enough to replicate. You’ll hear the words “folk,” “primitive,” etc. thrown around a lot when talking about his work. Not only is that inaccurate but I learned it the hard way myself: I think I (conservative estimate) turned it in around eight times before my professor finally accepted my copies. No, his work is way too layered to easily pigeonhole.

*Unfortunately I took these photos in windowless rooms with dim lighting so I apologize for their quality but I thought they’d be interesting to see nevertheless. That being said, you weren’t actually allowed to take photos in this particular exhibit but I took these before realizing my mistake. Oops.

It's rare to see World War I (or most wars really) from the Black Soldier's perspective. Horace made the frame too. It’s rare to see World War I (or most wars really) from the Black Soldier’s perspective. Horace made the frame too.

Born in 1888 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Horace started creating by the age of five. You probably think this is normal and why am I bothering to mention childhood scribbles? Horace is often characterized as an ex-soldier who started painting to strengthen his arm after an injury. Someone who had no art knowledge and was just blindly going about painting. So wrong. But I’ll keep pointing out those inaccuracies as best I can as we go along.

At a young age he moved to Goshen, New York with his family where he attended a segregated school. Before he could finish school, at the age of 14, he left to start earning income for his family. One of his jobs was crating up art as a mover where he was exposed to all different styles of art. What really charged Horace’s creativity and exploration was another experience though.

“When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,” wrote Pippin, “but it was World War I that brought out all the art in me…. I can never forget suffering, and I will never forget sunset…so I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.”

HORACE THE SOLDIER

Horace’s life, along with many other young men, was forever changed when he joined the army for WWI at the age of 29. Horace served in the 369th Infantry, an all-black regiment (nicknamed Harlem’s Hellfighters). Hostility towards black troops was high. Though some of the records were destroyed (just as plantation records and slavery/African passage records were partially had been as well) the army kept statistics of black soldiers who did not die in combat…or from illness…or from combat injuries. Instead, they died at the hands of their fellow (white American) soldiers.

The first recorded casualty for the 369th was from white American soldiers. A more widespread practice than you’d think involved using black troops as target practice, shooting them in the back. But Horace and his fellow soldiers were not the turn-the-other-cheek kind of Christians but rather the eye-for-an-eye kind. Black soldiers decided they would kill a white soldier for every black soldier killed. (While this occurred, it’s important I mention that I’m generalizing while using race terms here. Of course, not every white soldier and regiment viewed the 369th and black American soldiers badly. You can read more about the Hellfighters’ interesting story here).

America’s black troops pulled the short straw in almost every way you could. Some were given old uniforms from the U.S. 54th Massachusetts…yes, I’m talking about from the Civil War. And these weren’t in good condition. Some of them were even still blood stained, never having been cleaned.

Horace’s regiment was trained in Harlem with broomsticks; racist whites (especially in the government) were too unnerved to hand weapons to African-Americans while they were still on American soil (yes this makes no sense to us now). Hellfighters joked that their training consisted of a haircut and some quick drilling. Tensions were so high their training was abbreviated and they were shipped out early to France.

Most of the white regiments wanted nothing to do with the Hellfighters and pawned them off to the French who took charge of them. The Hellfighters wore their American soldier uniforms with French army hats. Despite their sacrifice and, often, heroics they were depicted animalistically back home in the media. (Here’s a great article on the treatment of African-Americans during WWI, you can imagine there’s a lot more to read about that).

Most black American soldiers carried at least these two talismans with them: the infamous photo of Gordon and a photo of the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty had been given to America by the French Anti-Slavery Society to honor the emancipation of slaves. It was a symbol of freedom from bondage, not for immigration or independence. (The original idea had Lady Liberty with chains and shackles in her hand instead of at her feet, making the meaning more obvious).

Many black soldiers who had fought in Europe for their country returned home only to be left destitute, rejected or even lynched. The democracy they had fought for wasn’t given to them, instead they were second-class citizens in an intolerant society. Horace’s creative work done while in France during the war was completely destroyed by censors; black soldiers and their experience were not to be depicted by their own hand. The French awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre but the American government didn’t award Horace his deserved Purple Heart until 1945. That’s 26 years late if you’re counting.

Horace returned from the war and to West Chester in 1919 after being shot by a German sniper. He was discharged as 75% disabled and had lost most of the use of his right arm. He used his left hand to guide his right hand until later in life when he began to regain some sensation back.

HORACE THE ARTIST

As I mentioned before, it’s often erroneously reported that Horace began painting after the war to strengthen his wounded arm. Sometimes something gets repeated so much it becomes like a fact. Horace has been using crayons and watercolors since he was a child. In fact he won a set of them in a contest sponsored by an art supply company.

But it was war that Horace said:  “brought out all the art in me.”

When he returned from the war he began making art again. This was his experimental stage when he used cigar boxes, wood burnings and oil on canvas. Unfortunately he gave much of this work away and was highly self-critical, especially at first, so there is really a decade of work missing from public view/knowledge. He had also been working as a junk collector after the war, another opportunity where he saw art all over the U.S. His work began to sell in the 1930s when he was “discovered” which is what you’ll see in a museum today.

It’s also been incorrectly stated…and restated, that Horace was first exposed to “real” art by artist N.C. Wyeth and art collector Albert Barnes. And when I say it was incorrectly stated his art dealer, Robert Carlan, and Albert Barnes had much to do with this. They wanted to sell his work as much as his story. A folksy fairytale of ignorant soldier not knowing what he was doing. They had his portrait taken (see it here) to make it appear as if he lived in a shack. But Horace wasn’t ready to cow down to all of this, he was an activist after all. He wore a suit instead of the laborer clothes they requested and looked away from the camera. (That is his shed in the back of his house but he lived in a nice brick building not a shack).

So they perpetuated these myths until they seemed like fact. And that’s why so much of the information about Horace available online now is completely incorrect (that’ll change when a new book is released in November this year). They weren’t all bad. They brought Horace’s work to a more visible level. I mean he was in museums only a year after painting in relative obscurity. His art made it into the MoMA in 1938. He became highly collectible, including by the frequent gangster actor, Edward G. Robinson, and other Hollywood stars. He took his vocation as an artist seriously and called himself one.

Horace’s work was quickly labelled as primitive, folk and simple. It was anything but. It was rare to see images of black domestic life, or the black soldier’s experience from WWI and Horace never shied from any of those depictions. He’d wake around noon and paint into the night. Composing often radical, philosophical works. It wasn’t just in his depictions of war, war bleeds through his domestic depictions too. You can see red poppies, planes, lace doilies reminiscent of barbed wire and more in a painting that at first appears to just be flowers on a table. The domestic depictions themselves centered on the idea of home and what was home after returning from war.

Horace used the Civil War often as a subject as well. His mother had been in the crowd at the execution of John Brown which he depicts in his John Brown series.

In 1944 Vogue commissioned Horace to create art related to cotton. It was to be used for backdrops on a photoshoot for a special Vogue issue devoted to cotton dresses. While big names were reproducing his work, so were more nefarious types. A large industry of fake Pippins cropped up even during his lifetime.

Horace died in his sleep from a stroke in 1946 at the age of 58 having completed around 140 works for public consumption. On Holy Mountain IV was in his room the night he died, the last painting he had been working on. He left no estate and his work was controlled by various galleries and his art dealer leaving his family destitute; his art dealer had to pay for his funeral.

Horace was buried in West Chester in the Chestnut Grove Annex Cemetery, established in 1862 it was used by African-American residents who were denied burial elsewhere.

A LITTLE BIT ABOUT JENNIE

Jennie, Horace’s wife whom he married after the war, was a twice widowed hairdresser when she met Horace through his brother. In fact her name by then was Jennie Ora Featherstone Wade Giles. She suffered many psychological problems and she didn’t quite understand her husband’s relationship with art sometimes leaving Horace feeling isolated and lonely. She spent much of the end of her life in a hospital. As with Horace’s life there’s quite a bit here that is speculation presented as fact. One of those theories is that she took too many diet pills which led to her psychological illnesses. I’m not sure there’s a concrete answer here.

She died two weeks after Horace.

Horace Pippin’s work and life are so mischaracterized and misrepresented that I could barely use any non-primary sources for this post (don’t read the Wikipedia post on him or any other biography type sites, they all contain glaring inaccuracies!). Luckily, the tide is finally turning. Better research and new, accurate work is coming out now. And in case you’re wondering here’s Horace:

Self-portrait, 1944 from the Met, New York.; Photo of Horace, here. Self-portrait, 1944 from the Met, New York.; Photo of Horace.

Sources: Lecture by Celeste-Marie Bernier {any mistakes here are my own; she has a book on Horace Pippin “Suffering and Sunset: WWI in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin” published November 2015}, Horace Pippin: The Way I See It exhibit at Brandywine River Museum, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7