A self-taught painter from West Chester, Pennsylvania, Horace Pippin began producing art at age thirty-seven and became one of the foremost African American artists of the 20th century, celebrated for his singular aesthetic and distinctive vision of American life. In 1917 at the age of twenty-nine he enlisted in the National Guard and according to Pippin, World War I “brought out the art in me” (as quoted in Judith Stein, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, p. 3). Pippin kept an illustrated journal of his time spent in the French trenches and while only six of these drawings exist today, they foreshadow the imagery that would emerge in his later work.
After fourteen months of service, Pippin was honorably discharged from the army after sustaining a crippling wound to his right shoulder. He moved back to West Chester with his new wife and began decorating cigar boxes with charcoal as therapy for his injured arm, which he couldn’t raise above his head. Delighted by the new sense of purpose he felt, Pippin expanded his creative production and began working in other mediums, completing his first painting, The End of the War: Starting Home, in 1930. While his activities as an artist during this period were unknown beyond his immediate circle, by the end of the decade Pippin had gained national recognition for his paintings and in 1939 enrolled in art classes at the famed Barnes Foundation in Marion, Pennsylvania.
The years between 1942 and 1944 are regarded as the most fruitful years of Pippin’s career, a period that Selden Redman described as the artist’s “high tide’ of integrating form and color” (Ibid., p. 82). In the final years of World War II, Pippin produced his Holy Mountain series comprised of four works, although the final painting was never completed. Inspired by an Old Testament text, the series depicts the peaceable kingdom that is prophesied in the book of Isiah and epitomize the artist’s spiritual temperament. Pippin grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and his only familiarity with religious art would likely have come from the mass-produced chromolithographs that illustrated Bibles and church vestibules. While he explored biblical subject matter in only ten paintings, a relatively small number in comparison with his total oeuvre, many of these works, including the Holy Mountain series are considered to be some of the artist’s best and most successful compositions.
Dated June 6, 1944, Holy Mountain I is the first work Pippin created in this seminal series. The image recalls 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 sixty-two exist (Fig. 1). 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.
Of the present work, Horace Pippin wrote: "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 (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" (as quoted in Grace Pagano, Contemporary American Painting: The Encyclopedia Britannica Collection, New York, 1945, n.p.)
Pippin has been likened to other African American artists of the period, including Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden who, like Pippin, were represented by The Downtown Gallery in the 1940s. While each of these artists has a distinct aesthetic, they are all celebrated for their depictions of African American culture and everyday life. In the catalogue introduction for Pippin’s 1977 retrospective exhibition, Romare Bearden wrote, “I met Horace Pippin on only one occasion. I was then thirty and he was about fifty-six. It was near the end of World War II, and Pippin had come to New York City… and had stopped by the Downtown Gallery to see Mrs. Edith Halpert, his New York dealer at the time…I recall a work of his in the gallery that I greatly admired in which the floor was painted flat as if it were, let us say, a wall. That the floor showed none of the recession of conventional perspective or the shadings and other attributes of exact representation didn’t trouble me at all. I thought it was just fine that Pippin had the innate judgement not to become absorbed with academic procedures that were not in keeping with his own vision and artistic personality” (Horace Pippin, Washington, D.C., 1976, n.p.). Appropriately, this skewed floor and distinctively modern perspective appears in some of Bearden’s later works, including a collage titled The Woodshed from 1969 (Fig. 2).
Indeed, 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. While Pippin was never interested in taking his paintings beyond representation, his ideas about the expressive power of color foreshadow the work of color field painters such as Clyfford Still who pushed these ideas to full abstraction (Fig. 3). As Pippin succinctly summated his artistic process, “Pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead" (as quoted in Jen Bryant, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, New York, 2013, p. 6).
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