There are many things in this life that we call art, and art does not take our understanding of any of the intricacies of color, light and shade, or the many different techniques there are in art, and that’s why art is truly for everyone. You might have heard of Da Vinci, Picasso, Monet and other great and famous painters, but in today’s Word Power episode, we will talk about one of the less talked about great painters of the twentieth century — we will talk about the art of Horace Pippin, and we will learn ten new words in the context of our story for today.
The Art of Horace Pippin
During the 1930s, it was unlikely that a middle-aged African American from a small town in Pennsylvania would achieve success as a painter. Add to this the fact that the man had never studied art, had earned his living as a hotel porter and used-clothes peddler, and had all but lost the use of his right arm. Horace Pippin had one of the most implausible careers in the history of twentieth-century art.
Born into a family just one generation removed from slavery, Pippin joined the army in 1917 at the age of twenty-nine. While fighting with the celebrated 369th Colored Infantry Regiment in France, he was shot by a sniper. As therapy for his injured arm, he started decorating discarded cigar boxes, whittling picture frames, and burning images on wood panels with a hot poker. It wasn’t until 1930 that he tried oil painting for the first time, propping up his right arm with his left hand.
The subject of Horace Pippin’s earliest paintings is World War I. The somber palette and emphasis on weapons and confrontation suggest that he was summarizing his response to the devastation of modern warfare rather than evoking specific memories of combat. What is most interesting about these early efforts is the three-dimensional effect of hundreds of layers of paint. Although Pippin subsequently abandoned such heavy layering, he continued to rely on scrupulously textured pigment, especially for foliage, textiles, and atmospheric effects.
Pippin’s representations of African American life are considered to be the apogee of his achievements as a painter who was attentive to popular culture. Culling images from magazines, films, and illustrated calendars, he committed vignettes of family life and seasonal activities to wood panels from doors, tables, or furniture cases. Often the varnish on the original surface provided the principal coloring. A humble charm suffuses these memorable scenes, alive with detail down to each lacy edge of a doily and every braid of a rag rug.
In 1937, Horace Pippin’s paintings came to the attention of an art critic, who encouraged him to contribute several works to an art show outside of Philadelphia. His paintings were so well received that he was asked to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition of so-called naive, or primitive, art. For a time, Pippin was more famous than Grandma Moses, with tributes from coast to coast and works reproduced in all the major magazines. Unfortunately, his fame was transient. He died in 1946, having completed 140 paintings, drawings, and wood panels. In his short but extraordinary career, this self-taught painter exalted the commonplace and commemorated his unique, vision of history, nature, and people.