Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
It is hard to imagine a better setting for the plainspoken work of the African American painter Horace Pippin (1888–1946) than the Brandywine River Museum’s converted 19th-century mill building, located only eight miles from Pippin’s birthplace in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Many of the paintings in this retrospective exhibition—which presented 60-plus canvases, over half of the artist’s total output—are scenes of life there.
The show’s title, “The Way I See It,” derives from a statement Pippin once made about his work: “I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.” A self-taught artist, Pippin began painting as a way to exorcise the horrors of WWI, in which he fought and was wounded (he worked by holding his crippled right arm steady with his left). The show includes several battle scenes—among them The End of the War: Starting Home (1930–33), with its handmade frame ornamented with carved weaponry—along with works addressing religious themes, social injustice, and the African American experience. Still lifes of fruits and flowers, and interiors like The Den (1945), with its mantelpiece display of ceramic dogs, contrast with such politically charged pieces as Study for Old King Cotton (1944), which was created (but never used) for a Vogue photo shoot. In it, four white fashion models pose in front of a cotton plantation, linked by a looping cotton thread to a black woman bent over her spinning wheel.
In Pippin’s “Holy Mountain” series, painted at the end of his life, biblical imagery and stinging social commentary can be found in the space of the same picture. Each painting is a variation of the “Peaceable Kingdom” series by Edward Hicks (1780–1849) and depicts the same scene: a black family at ease with a group of lions, wolves, and lambs. But the forest in the background plays host to all manner of horrors: lynchings, soldiers with guns, graveyards. Pippin was sharp-eyed and forthright about what he observed, making for much to see in “The Way I See It.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 100.