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Chester County Press

'Horace Pippin: The Way I See It' documents unique artistic vision

04/27/2015 12:00PM ● By J. Chambless

'Floral Still Life' (ca. 1944) by Horace Pippin.

'Self-Portrait (II)' (1944).

 One man's burning desire to paint -- whether or not anyone ever saw the finished works -- is at the heart of "Horace Pippin: The Way I See It," a major exhibition that opened last weekend at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. 
Pippin (1888-1946) was a longtime West Chester resident who began painting in 1930, long after returning from World War I with a disabled right arm. Working slowly, laboriously, he trained himself to paint, beginning with the simplest of tools, seen in the two burned-wood panels titled "The Bear Hunt." He etched the lines into the wood with a hot poker, and then added paint and varnish. Clearly drawn from memory, the companion pieces have a hand-written title on the lower edge: "We were on his trail as the sun went d-" Pippin wrote before running out of room.
The flourishing of Pippin's late-in-life career is traced through some 65 works in this exhibition, which comprises about half of all the works Pippin produced. Divided into themes, the exhibition looks at how West Chester, prejudice, war, heroes of history, religion and family informed Pippin's work. He considered his paintings realism, but to the art world of the 1930s, he was a charming, naive folk artist. Championed in the later 1930s by N.C. Wyeth, Christian Brinton and others, Pippin became a darling of collectors, and his flatly rendered scenes were purchased by wealthy patrons and celebrities ranging from Albert Barnes to actors  Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson.
Whether he was documenting ruler-straight still lifes of chairs and flowers, drawing interior scenes of poor homes, illustrating the stories of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, or reaching deep into his heart for paintings of religious themes, Pippin was straightforward and no-nonsense. He painted things the way he saw them. But there's a symbolic depth to many of Pippin's greatest paintings that even he might not have been aware of.
The exhibition contains Pippin's first great work, the three-dimensional "The End of the War: Starting Home" (1930-33), which summarizes his experiences in the trenches of World War I. The tanks, guns, weapons and helmets shown in the black-and-gray painting extend onto the frame as carved additions. Flashes of red explosions and the muted palette make the work bristle with sadness and danger.
By 1940, Pippin's palette had brightened and he was producing vibrant paintings such as "Amish Letter Writer," whose subject is leaning closely over his paper as if he's trying to fit within the horizontal composition; and "The Lady of the Lake," with the nude figure placed front and center as a flat shape that's just as important as the planters next to her. The focus is all-encompassing, capturing the foreground as distinctly as the birds and mountaintops in the distance. 
Pippin was capable of producing real drama and action in his works, such as "The Getaway" (1939), as a fox flees through a snowy landscape toward the viewer with a bird in its jaws, and "Country Doctor," in which a doctor makes his way through a pelting snowstorm. 
Pippin's views of West Chester are warm and heartfelt, and it's fascinating to compare his pencil sketch and finished painting for "After Supper, West Chester" (1935). He clearly worked to get every detail the way he saw it before applying the layers of paint that became his trademark. In "West Chester, Penn." (1942), the spreading tree dwarfs the row of plain brick homes and a solitary, seated figure. Pippin's portrait of a wealthy patron on her horse, "Coming In," depicts her as the simplest profile, while lavishing meticulous attention to each brick of her home and each leaf of the shrubs around her. 
Visitors get as deep a glimpse into Pippin's life as possible, and his handwritten and illustrated notebook of his World War I experiences is a fascinating addition. There are a couple of unfinished works from 1946 as well, rendered in black and tan to define the main objects without any detail being added.
Pippin's still lifes have a charming flatness and dazzling color, with the focus of the composition standing front and center. In "The Warped Table" (1940), the fruit and rose vaguely hover over the table surface, and in "The Den" (1945), an extremely detailed painting of a patron's living room has her porcelain dog sculptures lined up by size on the mantel, and every bit of the wood grain paneling faithfully captured. 
There are several scenes of life in poor homes, including the poignant "Saying Prayers" (1943) and the stark "Christmas Morning Breakfast" (1945), in which the breakfast is the merest sliver, but the tree is fully decorated and there are four wrapped presents ready to be opened. In contrast to the flat lighting of his other interiors, "Six O'Clock" (1940) has a distinctive warm, firelight tone. 
Issues of race are revealed in "Uncle Tom" (1944), as the title character holds a tiny Eva on his lap like a doll. He is not seen as subservient to the white girl, and his solidity and prominence are striking. In Pippin's "Holy Mountain" paintings, his version of the Peaceable Kingdom includes black people frolicking peacefully with a variety of animals in green fields while, in the thick woods behind them, dark profiles of soldiers are viciously fighting. To the far edge of both paintings, a black figure hangs from a tree. 
In Pippin's landmark "Mr. Prejudice" (1943), black and white men face off, with a white character splitting a central V with a hammer. The racial division seems absolute until you notice the two soldiers in the center, one black and one white, who are regarding each other flatly, but without malevolence. 
"Man on a Bench" is a familiar image from 1946, perhaps Pippin's final completed painting. It's regarded as a self-portrait, as a man sits wearily on a red park bench against a background of trees. In failing health, and grappling the mental decline of his wife, Pippin may just be the man seen here. Nearby, a white squirrel draws more of the viewer's focus than the man on the bench.
This large, comprehensive exhibition gives a rich insight into Pippin's themes, his sincerity and his earnest depictions of life the way he experienced it. Even if no one had ever championed him, this art would have needed to be expressed, and that's what makes Pippin so compelling today. We look at his paintings and see not only his life, but the timeless urge to capture that life and leave a mark in the world. 
The Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults; $10 for seniors; $6 for students and children ages 6 to 12; free for children age 5 and younger, and Brandywine Conservancy & Museum of Art members. Admission is free on Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except on May 24, during the annual Antiques Show).
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail [email protected]