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Four Elements

Horace Pippin

by Synatra Smith, Ph.D. on 2021-02-18T12:00:00-05:00 in Black Artists, Archives | Comments

The African American self-taught artist Horace Pippin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1888, and raised in nearby Goshen. At age eighteen he left Pennsylvania to work at the Fidelity Storage House in Paterson, New Jersey, as an iron molder, holding various other jobs over the years before enlisting in the all-Black 15th New York National Guard Regiment on July 15, 1917, under the name Harris Pippin, during World War I. He and his brother John used the names Harris and Piper, respectively (for Pippin, Harris seems to have served as a nom de guerre, since its use corresponds with his military service). While he was stationed in France, Pippin would sketch other soldiers, which became a major theme of his later work. Because of the racism they faced, Pippin’s regiment, redesignated the US 369th Infantry Regiment (also known as the Harlem Hellfighters), served alongside the French 4th Army. At the end of September 1918, having been shot in the back of the neck and through his shoulder and right arm, he was honorably discharged and awarded the Croix de guerre by the French government.[1] 

Pippin did not immediately begin painting after returning home. He took up art as a way to strengthen his injured arm. Around 1921 he wrote a war memoir illustrated with color sketches.  He also worked in pyrography, penciling an image on wood, and then burning it into it with hot poker; afterward he would paint the image with just a few colors, including white, earth tones, and some red, blue, or green. He switched to oil on stretched fabric (or canvas) in 1930, which launched him into a professional career as a painter.[2] 

Pippin’s work is largely autobiographical, reflecting the Black experience in World War I and Black family life through reference to his own military experiences and childhood. In his war memoir he described “the misery and peril of daily life in the trenches and the constant dangers posed by snipers, shells, gas, and aerial attack.”[3] He also wrote a series of personal narratives about his life <in the 1920s>, taking up the mode again in the late 1930s when curators were seeking the writings of self-taught artists. In “My Life’s Story” (1941) he wrote, “One winter, I tried to write my story of some of my experiences but did such an unsuccessful job I gave it up. Then I started to make drawings on wood panels ten years after my discharge. Still my arm and shoulder were so weak I could not work long at a time, but I kept trying. One day I decided to get some oil paint and I started the picture that was in my mind, ‘The Ending of the War Starting Home.’”[4] 

Pippin also painted religious scenes. After the psychological and physical trauma of the war, he turned increasingly to his faith. Having grown up in the African Methodist Episcopal church, “Pippin’s notions of religious art principally came from the common, mass-produced chromoliths that have illustrated Bibles, church vestibules, and African American homes since the advent of inexpensive color lithography.”[5] Two recurring themes of his religious paintings are the life and death of Jesus and the image of the Holy Mountain as described in the Old Testament.[6]

In addition to war, the Black family, and religious scenes, Pippin depicted historical figures and everyday life in his work.[7] In his latter subjects, Anne Monahan has argued, “Pippin navigates uneasily between resistance and accommodation in his recursive attention to black labor.”[8] Some of this work seems almost to play into white fantasies of “comfortable, content black farmworkers,” but he also treated his subjects with sensitivity and humanity.[9] Occasionally, Pippin reconceptualized works by other artists and photographers, as in The Getaway, which borrows from Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt (1893). He produced about 140 works over the course of his twenty-year career, two of which were exhibited at Philadelphia’s historic Pyramid Club in 1943, the decade of Pippin’s breakthrough, when his work was championed by the local curator and collector Christian Brinton and acquired by Albert C. Barnes. He died in his sleep from a stroke on July 6, 1946.[10]


PMA Collection


PMA Library


PMA Archive




Collins, Lisa Gail, and Rachel Mustalish. 2003. African-American Artists, 1929–1945: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Crompton, Samuel Willard, and Charlotte Etinde-Crompton. 2020. Horace Pippin: Painter and Decorated Soldier. New York: Enslow Publishing.


Monahan, Anne. 2020. Horace Pippin: American Modern. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Powell, Richard J. 2017. “Biblical and Spiritual Motifs in the Art of Horace Pippin.” In Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.


Sims, Lowery Stokes. 2015. Common Wealth: Art by African Americans in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: MFA Publications.


Wattenmaker, Richard J. 2010. American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation. Merion, PA: Barnes Foundation.


Further Reading


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

Stein, Judith E., Cornel West, Judith Wilson, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Richard J. Powell, Mark Bockrath, Barbara Buckley, and Anne Monahan. 1993. I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.



[1] Collins and Mustalish 2003; Crompton and Etinde-Crompton 2020; Monahan 2020; Powell 2017; Sims 2015; Wattenmaker 2010.

[2] Collins and Mustalish 2003; Crompton and Etinde-Crompton 2020; Sims 2015; Wattenmaker 2010. 

[3] Monahan 2020, 27.

[4] Ibid, 35.

[5] Powell 2017, 136; see also Crompton and Etinde-Crompton 2020.

[6] Powell 2017, 137; see also Collins and Mustalish 2003.

[7] Collins and Mustalish 2003; Sims 2015.

[8] Monahan 2020, 73.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Collins and Mustalish 2003; Crompton and Etinde-Crompton 2020; Monahan 2020; Wattenmaker 2010.

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