Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was, by any measure, a disadvantaged man.
His grandparents were slaves. Like countless other blacks of his generation, he was poor and poorly educated. He left school in the third grade. In battle during World War I he lost the use of his right arm. Occasionally he drank. When he worked he held the most menial of jobs, junk gatherer, warehouse man, hotel porter. Later he delivered laundry that his wife took in.
Nothing in his biography explains how he became an extraordinary painter. No one gave him lessons or showed him the old masters. He said he "came to art the hard way." He taught it to himself.
Pippin's gifts were recognized at once. Between his first and second local shows, his pictures were "discovered," purchased or applauded by the artist N.C. Wyeth, the collector Albert Barnes (of the Barnes Collection), and by the Museum of Modern Art.
Pippin's art is magical. The beauty of his colors and the power of his pictures will be sensed at once by all who pay a visit to the Horace Pippin retrospective, which will be on view through March 27 at the Phillips Collection here.
Like other self-taught masters, like the poet William Blake, the Douanier Rousseau or his fellow Pennsylvanian the limner Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Pippin received visions. The pictures "come to me," he said. "I do over the picture several times in my mind and when I am ready to paint it I have all the details I need." Whether painting saints or landscapes, the war, Abe Lincoln or John Brown, Pippin's pictures demonstrate unshakeable conviction.
Because his forms are so robust, because his compositions are so daring, the painter Romare Bearden, who met Pippin only once, was astonished to hear Pippin say his paintings "were completely realistic . . . To him these images were not distortions, but perfectly literal translations of the literal world."
Such terms as "folk art," "popular," naive," seem somehow condescending when applied to the sophistications of Horace Pippin's art. Look, for instance, at his clouds, at his sunsets and his skies, or at the way his pattersn interlock and echo in the battle-blasted wall of "Shell Holes and Observation Balloon: Champagne Sector," a scene of the great war which the artist did from memory in 1931.
There are other splendid paintings here, the Whitney Museum's "Buffalo Hunt" of 1933, "West Chester Courthouse," of 1940. "The Amish Letter Writer," with its amazing interplay of diagonals and circles. "The Squirrel Hunter" of 1940, and "John Brown Going to His Hanging" of 1942.
Pippin's grandmother was a witness to that execution. While a crowd stares at the martyr in the Pennsylvania Academy's paiting, she turns her face away.
Look closely at that picture's colors, at how the red scarves of the white men accentuate the blue-and-white grid pattern of her dress. Two color systems operate in Pippin's finest pictures. One is based on small zones of brilliant hue, the other is an extraordinary subtle play of close-toned grays and blacks.
The grandmother's shawl and bonnet are painted in the grays of the clapboard wall behind her. "One can tell a true colorist by how he handles grays," writes the Phillips' James McLaughin. "By this standard Pippin shows himself a master colorist."
Pippin painted with difficulty. Because his arm was ruined, he had to support his right hand with his left when he used the brush. When new his pictures sold for $50 or $100.Some now cost as much as $50,000.
The 47 paintings here include many works of unforgettable intensite. All are reproduced in color in the exhibition catalog. Proceeds from the sale of Pippin catalogs and posters will benefit the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture of New York.