An artist's self-rediscovery
On the 125th year of his birth, recalling the artist who, his body wounded by war but his mind full of scenes to paint, found his way.
Jen Bryant lives in Chester County and is the author of "A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin," illustrated by Melissa Sweet
In 1933, if you peered through the first-floor window of a certain plain brick house on Gay Street in West Chester, you might see a strongly built African American man, impeccably dressed in pressed white shirt and wool vest, his left hand grasping his right wrist, leaning toward his easel.
His gaze is riveted, intense, as he applies from his palette, in thick, short strokes, house paint he's scavenged from the borough's alleys. Looking closer, you'd notice the colors are somber: gray, white, black, and brown, with the occasional splash of red. You'd notice too, that the scene depicted on stretched linen is a battle in the trenches of the Great War, with all of its chaos and despair. He called it The End of War: Starting Home, and he'd been working on it for three years.
And if you looked closer into that neatly kept home, you might see the iron poker that the big man grasped one night, as he fought off memories of those muddy trenches, the droning planes, the gunfire, the smoke; as he recalled the sniper's bullet that had lodged in his right shoulder, pushing him back into the trench, where he almost bled to death; and later, the French surgeon inserting a steel plate, sending him home to the United States with a nearly useless arm, a soldier's pension, and the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in battle. That night, the black veteran whom no one would hire because of his injury, had taken a spare leaf from his kitchen table and using the poker, burned a hunting scene into the soft wood. That felt good! Some light, which had dimmed in him since the war, suddenly flickered.
Horace Pippin, who was born in West Chester on Feb. 22, 1888, loved to draw. His family had no money for art supplies, so he'd use charcoal, discarded pencils, and crayons - whatever he could find. He was so proud when he won a box of real watercolor paints and a set of colored pencils in a magazine's art contest. Throughout his teens, when he had to quit school and work to support his siblings, he sketched whenever he could. Even in the mud-soaked trenches of France, he filled notebooks with scenes from the war - until he was shot.
Fourteen years later, as he completed his first oil painting, he didn't want to stop. There were so many things to paint: scenes from his West Chester neighborhood, stories that his grandmother - a former slave - had told, Bible stories, and more images of war. Ideas were everywhere and the more he captured them on canvas or burned them into wood, the better he felt. "It brought me back to my old self," he said.
Neighbors learned not to disturb the normally gentle, easygoing Pippin when he was painting. But despite the seriousness with which he approached his art, no one wanted to buy it. He and his wife, Jennie, got by on his meager Army pension and the money she made from her laundry business. Pippin traded his paintings for a haircut. He placed a few in the shoe store window and in the nearby sandwich shop next to a neatly printed sign that said "five dollars."
Then, one day, the art critic Christian Brinton saw them. He immediately inquired about the artist. The man was named Pippin, he learned from the shop owner, and lived just a few blocks away. Pippin was also a veteran, Brinton learned, one of the legendary African American "Hellfighters," whose regiment had seen some of the longest and bloodiest fighting in that Great War.
Brinton called his friend, the great illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and told him to come have a look. Wyeth agreed: Pippin had raw talent and a fresh perspective. The men called on Pippin and asked to see more. "It is some of the purest expression I have seen in a long time," Wyeth later remarked.
That year, 1937, Pippin entered two paintings in the Chester County Art Association's annual exhibition. The show was well-attended and covered by the Philadelphia press. Wyeth and Brinton then organized and sponsored Pippin's first one-man show at the West Chester Community Center. After that, he was on the art world's map.
As word of Pippin's work spread throughout Philadelphia and beyond, his fame quickly escalated. Albert Barnes collected his work and showed him paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Gauguin, and others at his Merion foundation. Robert Carlen became his agent and Hollywood actors clamored for his latest work. The following year, New York's Museum of Modern Art included four of his works in their "Masters of Popular Painting" exhibition.
Today, if you walk past that plain brick house on West Gay Street, you will see the blue-and-yellow Pennsylvania Historical Marker, dedicated in 1979, with a brief description of the artist and a few of his better-known works. And if you close your eyes and imagine that you're back in the 1930s, you might see him leaning toward his easel, his left hand grasping his right wrist, painting pictures.
Jen Bryant will be talking about "A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin" on Monday at 11 a.m. at the Chester County Historical Society, 225 N. High St., West Chester (www.chestercohistorical.
org); and next Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford (www. brandywinemuseum.org).