“He must be an artist. He knows a good painting when he sees it."
It took the self-taught African American folk artist Horace Pippin three years to complete his first oil painting. He had returned from the First World War with a steel plate in his right shoulder which left his arm virtually paralysed. Using his good left hand to support his right arm at the wrist Pippen was able to guide it across the canvas.
This first painting The End of War: Starting home was a cathartic work which along with several others Pippen exorcised the horror of the trenches and launched his artistic career. As he wrote “When I was a boy I loved to make pictures, [but war] brought out all the art in me. . . . I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunsets. So I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.”
Four years later the artist NC Wyeth saw two of Pippins paintings in a shoe repair shop window. He was so taken by the works that he organised for Pippen to be the first African American artist to be shown in the annual Chester County Art Association's exhibition. A solo exhibition followed and a year later four of Pippen’s works were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1938 exhibition "Masters of Popular Painting."
Around this time the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, became interested in Pippen’s work and became its champion, writing essays about and purchasing the artist’s works which still hang today amongst Barnes’ collection of Cézanne’s, Matisse’s and Renoir’s.
Whilst Pippen’s war paintings were the catalyst for his career it was his scenes of African American domesticity and his works inspired by the social-political historical injustices visited upon his people that cemented his place in annals American art.
Variously described by the critics of the day as a primitive/naïve artist, Pippen was a man who knew his own mind. As on the occasion when Dr. Barnes offered critical painting suggestions Pippen is reported to have replied "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint."
The exhibition Horace Pippin: The Way I See It is currently on show at Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River Museum of Art until the 19th of July.