Historical Markers
Horace Pippin Historical Marker
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Horace Pippin

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
327 Gay St., West Chester

Dedication Date:
June 9, 1979

Behind the Marker

Horace Pippin was the first African-American self-taught painter whose works achieved national attention. Born in West Chester, he spent most of his childhood in New York and New Jersey. As a young man he worked as a hotel porter, mover, and iron molder. In 1917 he enlisted in the army and fought in the famous, all-black 369th Infantry regiment in France during World War I. In October, 1918, less than a month before the war ended, he was shot in the right shoulder. His service earned him the French Croix de Guerre, an honorable discharge, and a disability pension. This enabled him to live with his wife, Jennie Ora Featherstone Wade Giles, a laundress, and her son, in his hometown of West Chester for the rest of his life. There he joined the American Legion and served as commander of the town's African-American post from 1925 to 1927. Pippin's paintings of his house, the Chester County Court House, his wife, and other local scenes and people convey one African American's sense of security and affection for at least one small, predominantly white American town whose citizens encouraged his art.
A painting of a brown brick courthouse with a clock tower. Black statue with white base.
West Chester Court House, by Horace Pippin, 1940.

Pippin's artistic talent appeared early; as a ten-year-old he won a box of crayons in an art contest. "When I was a boy I loved to make pictures," he later wrote, but it was the war "that 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." Most of Pippin's earliest work is lost. Only one sketchbook remains from his numerous wartime drawings, which may be examined in his papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D. C.

After the war, the handicapped Pippin devised a way of supporting his right hand with his left. Using a hot poker to burn in the outlines of his figures and objects onto wood (a technique called pyrography) and then filling them in, he was able to resume painting by the mid-1920s. He then began using oil paints. Local exhibitions and collectors brought him to the attention of Alain Locke, an important black philosopher and critic, the painter N.C. Wyeth - much of whose family's work may be found at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford southeast of West Chester - and markerDr. Albert F. Barnes, whose private museum in Merion houses one of the world's most important collections of French impressionist and modern art. At first amazed that one of his paintings would sell for as much as $150, Pippin soon began showing his work in numerous exhibitions at galleries and in the nation's leading art museums. Despite the disability that made painting difficult, he executed about 140 small canvases, in the last twenty years of his life.
A dark painting of jubilant soldiers framed in a wooden frame with symbols of war attached
The End of the War: Starting Home, by Horace Pippin, circa 1930.

Pippin's work treats several topics. The war sketch books and one of his most famous works, "The End of the War: Staring Home," begun in 1930, deal with the horrors of war. This painting, owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has a unique frame with sculpted guns, tanks, helmets, grenades, and other weapons. It surrounds the painting of a battlefield in which planes fall from the sky, explosions go off, and dying men are caught in barbed wire. One figure, however, has received news that the war has ended, and raises his arms in surrender.

Many of Pippin's works deal with contemporary African-American life, depicting it with a tranquility, warmth, and quiet beauty. "The Domino Players" (1944) in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and "Christmas Morning, Breakfast," (1945), owned by the Cincinnati Museum of Art, are two of the many Pippins found outside of Pennsylvania. Others deal with religious topics; his moving rendering of Christ's crucifixion and the three "Holy Mountain" paintings are especially beautiful. The latter are modeled on nineteenth-century Pennsylvania primitive artist markerEdward Hicks' numerous paintings of "The Peaceable Kingdom," based on the prophesy of Isaiah, in which lions and other predators lie down with lambs and children. In some of these paintings markerBenjamin West's "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" appear in the background. Pippin substitutes a black shepherd for the Christ child who brings the animals together, while a black boy plays with them in the foreground.
In the lower half of the painting, the figure groups are placed symmetrically on either side of the large "V", separating them. For African Americans, the "V" for victory referred to the winning the struggle for equality in the U.S. as well as winning the war in Europe. On the left of the painting a black Statue of Liberty, holds a flaming torch. Four African American men stand below her, each wearing a uniform: a doctor, an aviator, a sailor, and Horace Pippin himself, wearing a brown WW I uniform, with his right arm injured in battle hanging straight down at his side.  On the right are white men in uniform. One of them extends his hand towards the black man on the other side and his gesture is mirrored by sailor on the left, however their hands do not touch. A grim faced white man, depicted as an executioner, hammers a wedge into the "V" The skin color of the individuals separates the black and white on either side of the painting. On the right side of the painting a white-robed member of the Ku Klux Klan hovers above a man holding a noose.
Mr. Prejudice, by Horace Pippin, 1943.

Scenes dealing with African-American history and the struggle for equality are among Pippin's most powerful works. Paintings of the life of Abraham Lincoln and the trial and execution of John Brown implicitly invite comparison with the death of Christ. Two portraits of singer markerMarian Anderson are filled with the joy and affirmation of life the great African-American singer brought to her art. In "Mr. Prejudice" (1943), Pippin created a powerful painting on race relations during the Second World War. Centered near the top of the painting a white worker with a sledge hammer is about to shatter the wartime "V" for Victory, and in the process further dividing black and white Americans. Beneath the sharp point at the bottom of the "V", a black and a white serviceman reach towards each other in respect and friendship.

Pippin himself was not a political activist, but his art still speaks powerfully against social injustice. Pippin never attended art school. Despite the small size of his canvases, Pippin, Dr. Albert Barnes said, was a "giant." Unlike his African-American Pennsylvania predecessor markerHenry Ossawa Tanner,  who painted in an academic style, Pippin's own untutored style expressed the deepest aspirations of his fellow African Americans: to achieve communal security, economic well-being, political freedom, and religious salvation.
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