Who was Horace Pippin? With No Formal Artistic Training, the Artist Impressed Visionary Collector Albert Barnes
By Valerie Stanos
Horace Pippin lived in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia not far from Lancaster County, a center of the Pennsylvania Amish community. The artist drew his subject matter primarily from the activities of small-town life and likely found the inspiration for Amish Letter Writer in Lancaster. He had little use for those who suggested he seek formal artistic training, preferring to embrace his own method, painting each work on the basis of images visualized in his head with no preparatory drawings or sketches. Pippin suffered an injury in World War I that limited the mobility of his right arm, so he used small canvases, which offer an intimate glimpse into the world of his imagination. He built his scenes of areas of color using very little perspective, resulting in a graphic quality that set his work apart from that of his contemporaries.
Selden Rodman writes, “In ‘Amish Letter Writer’ Pippin demonstrated anew his unerring instinct for abstract design, and the capacity, never sacrificed with growing sophistication and skill, to return to an earlier ‘style’ whenever the mood of the picture required a starker simplicity of means. In this picture the long bent back of the scribe completes the central darkness of the window behind him. Lampshade and inkwell repeat the night’s checkered pyramid. The moon, illuminated but not illuminating, takes its place with teacup, pitcher and chimney in proper equality of value. The eye focuses, as it should, on the black hieroglyphics of the white sheet beneath the writer’s hand” (Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America, New York, 1947, p. 16). Amish Letter Writer was painted just as Pippin was beginning to receive attention from museums, collectors and dealers. Robert Carlen, an art dealer in Philadelphia, took a great interest in his work and mounted his first solo exhibition in January 1940. The visionary collector Albert Barnes saw Pippin’s paintings as they were being installed at Carlen’s gallery and bought several on the spot.
Cover image: Horace Pippin, American, 1888–1946. Amish Letter Writer, 1940. Oil on canvas. 12 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right