From a One-Room Schoolhouse to the Museum of Modern Art
HORACE Pippin - like Henri Rousseau, the most famous of all naif painters - always wanted to paint. And like that excellent Post-Impressionist, Pippin was entirely self-taught. The subjects Pippin chose, complicated historical, religious, and genre scenes and portraits, are not the usual choices of the unschooled naif painter. ``The Domino Players'' is skillful on several levels. The group around the table is arresting for the sophistication of the arrangement and the expressive characterization of the faces, all painted with great economy. An otherwise static scene is given a sense of movement and life by the progression of both texture and color across the canvas.
The eye is caught by the dotted blouse of the woman on the right and is carried by the dominoes to the woman on the left, whose grizzled hair and dotted headscarf complete the textural passage. Her red bandanna begins the lively and unifying color touches. The red skips to the flame of the kerosene lamp on the table, back to the red dots of the blouse of the woman on the right, on to the red pieces in the quilt and on the lamp on the shelf. The white of the shelf skirt is ready to send our glance back across the canvas over the white garments of the four members of the group.
While the poverty of the house is emphasized by the lath showing through cracked plaster walls, the broken chair back, and the torn window shade, it is also denied by the rich warmth of the intimate family harmony as the cold evening is whiled away with the amiable competition of the game of dominoes.
AS might be expected, the painting contains autobiographical elements. A poor black child, Pippin attended a segregated one-room schoolhouse at Goshen, New York. At the age of seven he drew his first pictures.
Later he remembered that, at 10, he answered a magazine advertisement and received, ``a box of crayon pencils of six different colors. Also a box of cold-water paint and two brushes... I got a yard of muslin, and cut it into six pieces, then fringed the edge of each making a doily out of them. On each I drew a biblical picture....''
When Pippin was 14 he tried a portrait, and the sitter, who was also his employer, was so impressed that he offered young Horace art instruction. Because his mother had become ill, the boy was unable to accept the generous offer and had to leave school the following year to work as a porter in the local hotel in order to support her.
After his mother died, he moved around and worked at various jobs until he enlisted as an infantryman in World War I. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre after being wounded. The injury left his right arm virtually useless.
He married and settled in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he had been born. Around 1925 he returned to art by way of wood burning. He was able to do this by holding a ``white-hot-poker'' against his knee with his crippled right hand while guiding a wood panel against the poker with his left.
Later, he began painting again, although his first work took three years to complete. Titled, ``End of the War: Starting Home,'' it was the first of a series of war reminiscences. He was to say: ``The pictures which I have already painted come to me in my mind, and if to me it is a worthwhile picture I paint it. 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.''
IN 1937, at age 49, Pippin entered two paintings in the West Chester County Art Association's annual invitation show. The well-known illustrator N.C. Wyeth was interested enough to persuade the association to give Pippin a one-man show of 10 paintings and seven burnt-wood panels. Following this, his works were shown at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York City. From that time on he enjoyed continuing exhibits of his work.
Besides genre scenes from his childhood, Pippin painted a series of three powerful depictions about the famous abolitionist, John Brown. His grandmother had been a slave when she witnessed Brown's hanging. In the painting, ``John Brown Goes to His Hanging,'' Pippin painted his grandmother in a corner of the canvas with her back turned from a scene she cannot bear to watch, the only spectator moved with compassion and sorrow. Abraham Lincoln was the subject of another historical series.
He also portrayed religious subjects with varying degrees of success. His ``Woman Taken in Adultery'' is a strikingly composed scene which demonstrates his ability to fuse simple masses of widely varying colors into a harmonious whole. His ``Christ Before Pilate'' is as powerful a statement of that dramatic moment as any Renaissance work.
Two years before his passing in 1946, he embarked on a series of ``Holy Mountain'' paintings inspired the ``Peaceable Kingdom'' series by the 19th-century naif painter Edward O. Hicks. Pippin saw several of Hicks's works at his art dealer's establishment. Pippin explained his interest in the subject in the following quotation (reproduced with his capitalization and punctuation):
``To my dear friends:
``To tell you why I painted the picture. It is my holy mountain my Holy mountain...
``The world is in a bad way at this time. I mean war. And men have never loved one another. There is trouble every place yo Go today. Then one thinks of peace, yes there will be - peace, so I look at Isaiah xi-6-10 - there I found that there will be peace ... Every time I read it I got a new thought on it. So I went to work. Isaiah xi the 6v to the 10 v gave me the picture ...
``And a little child, shall lead them... Then I had something else to think about also, and that is the asp, and the Cockatrice's Den, which is the most deadly thing of them all ... and to think that a suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp. And the weaned child shall put his hand on the Cockatrice's Den, and this is why it is done, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea....
``Now my picture would not be complete of today if the little ghostlike memory did not appear in the left of the picture. As the men are dying, today the little crosses tell us of them in the first world war and what is doing in the south today - all of that we are going through now. But there will be peace.''
WHILE the theme may have been suggested by Hicks, the paintings themselves with the dense greenery in the background remind one more of Henri Rousseau's imaginative jungle paintings. The children mentioned in Isaiah are plainly of interest to Pippin. He puts three in each painting. They are black boys and girls except for one painting in which a little girl is white. With lambs and goats they mingle unafraid among leopards, lions, and wolves. In two of the three versions the tiny white crosses from his memories of war appear inconspicuously, almost hesitantly, in the background.