Image of a man with a staff, surrounded by animals in front of a woods.
American Art

The Symbolism Behind Horace Pippin's Fantastical Biblical Vision

By Colton Klein

Self-taught painter Horace Pippin became one of the foremost African American artists of the 20th century with his singular, color-driven aesthetic and distinctive vision of American life. Now his masterwork Holy Mountain, I from 1944, an imaginative scene scene inspired by a Biblical passage, will be offered in Sotheby's American Art Auction (16 November, New York). Below, discover more about the artist and this symbolically rich artwork.

In 1917 at the age of 29, Horace Pippin enlisted in the National Guard. After sustaining a crippling wound to his right shoulder, Pippin was honorably discharged and returned to his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, and he began decorating cigar boxes with charcoal as therapy for his injured arm.

Enthused by his newfound sense of purpose, Pippin soon expanded his creative production and began working in other mediums, completing his first painting, The End of the War: Starting Home, in 1930, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though his works from this period were unknown beyond his immediate circle, by the end of the decade he had gained national recognition for his paintings.

"If a man knows nothing but hard times he will paint them, for he must be true to himself, but even that man may have a dream, an ideal—and Holy Mountain is my answer to such painting."
Horace Pippen

During the final years of World War II, Pippin created his lauded Holy Mountain series. The series consisted of four works, though the final work was never completed, of which Holy Mountain, I , created in 1944, was the first. Inspired by an Old Testament text, the series depicts the peaceable kingdom that is prophesied in the book of Isiah and epitomizes the artist’s spiritual temperament. Raised in an African Methodist Episcopal Church, Pippin’s only familiarity with religious art would likely have come from the mass-produced chromolithographs that illustrated Bibles and church vestibules.

Holy Mountain, I calls to mind the Peaceable Kingdom pictures that Quaker minister and artist Edward Hicks produced between 1820 and 1848, which Pippin would have undoubtedly been familiar with and of which at least 62 exist. While Hicks interprets the messianic prophecy in the book of Isaiah quite literally, depicting a bucolic scene of Eden where all creatures exists in perfect harmony, Pippin tailors the subject to reflect both his personal experiences and the cultural climate of the period. A shepherd of African ancestry clad in a bright white robe stands at the center of the composition surrounded by a group of children and animals, both real and imaginary, organized within a lush landscape. The shepherd bears a striking resemblance to Pippin himself and has been understood by many scholars to be a self-portrait. Pippin contrasts the harmonic foreground with a threatening and ominous background where soldiers lurk in the forest adjacent to a military burial ground. In fact, the date of Holy Mountain, I , June 6, 1944, corresponds with D-Day, a turning point in World War II when the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, a detail that reinforces the ideological dichotomy between war and peace even further.

"I do not know what to say in regards to my painting. Sometimes I think I'll never know painting for there is so much to know. Holy Mountain came to my mind because the whole world is in such trouble, and in reading the Bible (Book of Isaiah XI:6) it says that there will be peace in the land. If a man knows nothing but hard times he will paint them, for he must be true to himself, but even that man may have a dream, an ideal—and Holy Mountain is my answer to such painting" said Horace Pippin of the painting.1

Throughout his career Pippin was less concerned with faithfully portraying his subjects and more focused on capturing a specific vision. He utilized the dynamic power and structural function of color to convey emotion, relying on subjects both conjured from memory and drawn from the world around him. As Pippin succinctly summated his artistic process, “Pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead."

1. as quoted in Grace Pagano, Contemporary American Painting: The Encyclopedia Britannica Collection, New York, 1945, n.p..

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