Marine veteran Laurence Stallings, co-author of the celebrated play What Price Glory?, once wrote: ‘There were no chroniclers, no painters, no writers reaching greatness because of [World War I].’ One he overlooked was artist Horace Pippin, who found his first subjects — and suffered the grievous wounds that paved the way for his brief but illustrious career — in the trenches of France in 1918.
‘When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,’ Pippin recalled, but it was World War I that ‘brought out all the art in me….I can never forget suffering, and I will never forget sunset… so I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.’
A disabled black veteran who taught himself to paint, Pippin overcame his handicap — as well as discrimination — to become an overnight sensation in the American art world in the 1940s. Many consider him to be the foremost self-trained American artist of the 20th century, a painter whose artwork is reminiscent of the work of Grandma Moses and Jacob Lawrence. Pippin’s paintings are characterized by simplified forms, flattened perspectives and an intuitive sense of color, composition and narrative, combining folk-art qualities with artistic sophistication. ‘Pictures just come to my mind,’ Pippin remarked, ‘and I tell my heart to go ahead.’
Born some 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia in West Chester, Pa., in 1888, Pippin was raised by his mother, a domestic worker. He spent his childhood in Goshen, N.Y., where he attended a one-room school, studied the Bible and showed artistic ability at an early age. Dropping out of school at the age of 14 to help support the family, Pippin took a series of menial jobs, ranging from hotel porter to warehouse packer. In 1917 he enlisted in the 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard, which was redesignated the 369th U.S. Infantry after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6. After training, Pippin’s all-black unit and its white officers were shipped to France.
The commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, had earned his nickname ‘Black Jack’ as an officer in the 10th Cavalry and had a high regard for the black soldier’s fighting qualities, but he went along with the prevailing Army prejudices of the time. When the 369th arrived at Brest in December 1917, its troops were transported to St. Nazaire, where most of them laid railroad tracks and worked as stevedores. While standing guard duty on the outskirts of a community near the front lines, Pippin was forced to shoot a man — presumably a Frenchman — who failed to halt after being warned three times.
The reluctance of white officers to integrate American units was underscored when a request to make Pippin’s 369th part of New York’s all-white 42nd ‘Rainbow’ Division was rejected with the comment that ‘black is not one of the colors of the rainbow.’ The French, however, had their own black colonial troops in the front lines and were willing to fight alongside black Americans as well. Pershing had previously agreed to supply the French with four infantry regiments, so the assignment of the 369th to the French Fourth Army enabled him to solve two problems at once.
The 369th was in the thick of the bloody Champagne-Marne and Aisne-Marne battles in the summer of 1918 and the costly Meuse-Argonne offensive that fall. Serving 191 days in the front lines — longer than any other U.S. regiment — the black troops never lost an inch of ground or had a man taken prisoner. The 369th’s stellar performance earned the entire regiment the Croix de Guerre from the French government. ‘We were good,’ Pippin wrote proudly, ‘good a nuff to go any place.’
In one of the few autobiographical accounts by a black soldier to come out of World War I, Pippin related his combat experiences in matter-of-fact terms. In copy books that he illustrated with pencil and crayon drawings of marching troops, soldiers wearing gas masks, exploding shells and aerial dogfights, he recorded nightmarish memories of war on the Western Front. In spite of erratic spelling and awkward grammar, Pippin’s memoirs (preserved at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.) vividly convey one doughboy’s response to the bone-chilling cold, ceaseless rain, constant gunfire, poisonous gas, confusion and bloodshed in and around what he dubbed ‘them lonely, cooty, muddy trenches.’
Soaked to the skin, often unable to change clothes or even remove his shoes for days on end, Pippin became so accustomed to bursting shells that he ‘did not mind them at all.’ The sound of German machine-gun bullets hitting barbed wire, he wrote, was like bees humming or birds chirping. Poisonous gas was a constant threat,’so thick…that it all looked Blue….[The Germans] put so mutch gas in one place and…it were so thick that it looked like fog.’
Pippin admired the fierce Algerian fighters who served alongside his unit for a time. They were ‘a bad lot,’ he wrote, and would charge German lines ‘like a pack of mad men,’ with 8-inch knives clenched in their teeth, ‘and they never have a prisoner but their knife would have fresh blood on it when he came back.’
Assigned to patrols in no man’s land, Pippin himself participated in brutal encounters. On one mission, three troops from his eight-man squad died in hand-to-hand battle, but they killed nine of the 10 attacking German soldiers.
On his fateful, final mission, Pippin was among the heavy casualties suffered by the regiment as it advanced to capture the town of Séchault on September 30, 1918. ‘I seen a machine gun,’ he wrote, ‘[and] I got him.’ But when he went after another machine-gunner, ‘he let me have it.’ Bullets shattered his right shoulder and arm, and he tumbled into a deep shell hole. Pinned down by sniper fire, he lost much blood and was unable to move.
A French soldier seeking to help was shot dead and fell on top of Pippin, who was unable to remove him. After spending hours in the rain, he was rescued, but he lay on a stretcher overnight, exposed to the elements, before being evacuated to a hospital. Following months of treatment, Pippin was shipped back to the States.
After the armistice on November 11, 1918, the 369th was the first American contingent to cross the Rhine into Germany as part of the French army of occupation. More than a million New Yorkers welcomed home the 369th as it led a victory parade up Fifth Avenue to Harlem in February 1919.
Discharged earlier that year with a steel plate in his shoulder and his right arm virtually paralyzed, Pippin returned to civilian life in West Chester — shattered both physically and psychologically. Pippin’s wartime experiences depresed and confused him because he believed, as the Bible said, that all men were brothers.
For years Pippin scraped by on his monthly disability pension of $22.50, income from odd jobs and his wife’s earnings from taking in laundry. (In 1920 he had married a twice-widowed woman who had a 6-year-old son.) A dignified, friendly but reticent man, Pippin organized a Boy Scout troop, umpired neighborhood ball games and was involved in the Elks and church activities. For several years he served as commander of Nathan Holmes Post No. 362, the local black American Legion organization. He also participated in local patriotic events and proudly wore his Purple Heart when it was belatedly awarded him in 1945.
To combat frequent ‘blue spells’ and rehabilitate his injured limb, Pippin gradually taught himself to paint, using his good left hand to support his crippled right arm at the wrist and guide his brush across the canvas. He did most of his painting in a ground-floor room of his small red-brick house, working mainly at night under a bare, 200-watt light bulb. Not surprisingly, Pippin’s first major effort, which required the application of 100 coats of paint and took three years to complete, grew out of his wartime experiences. The End of the War: Starting Home (c. 1930) shows German soldiers emerging from trenches to surrender to black American infantrymen. The grim impact of exploding shells, planes falling from the sky, menacing barbed-wire entanglements and the expressionless faces of troops on both sides is intensified by a series of helmets, hand grenades, rifles, bombs and tanks that Pippin carved into the elaborate surrounding frame.
Over the next several years Pippin produced other war-related images by this same laborious process. Shell Holes and Observation Balloon (1935) replicates the mutilated terrain of the Western Front. In Dogfight Over Trenches, also painted in 1935, soldiers in a dugout watch aerial combat, a work inspired by the time Pippin saw a German plane crash in flames, leaving its two occupants looking ‘like mush.’ The victorious French pilot, the artist wrote, circled above ‘like a king over his great foe.’
Painting those images offered Pippin a way of coming to terms with the trauma of war and perhaps purging his memory of it. While friends and neighbors were aware of his artistic efforts, no one took his vividly colored, naively rendered paintings seriously. Pippin occasionally bartered pictures for goods or displayed them for sale for a few dollars.
In 1937, one of his paintings was spotted in the window of a West Chester shoe-repair shop by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who lived in the area. Wyeth soon helped organize a show of Pippin’s work, which was well-received. Within months, with the help of an aggressive Philadelphia art dealer, Pippin’s paintings were displayed in major museums.
Before long, Pippin was turning out depictions of African-American domestic life, portraits, regional landscapes, still lifes, historical vignettes and religious scenes. The paintings were eagerly sought after by wealthy collectors, including such Hollywood stars as John Garfield, Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson.
Pippin did portraits of several fellow veterans he met through American Legion activities. One showed Paul B. Dague, then deputy sheriff of Chester County and later the area’s congressman, in full Marine dress uniform. The leading local hero, retired Marine Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler, was profiled against a cloudy sky because, said the artist, Butler ‘was always looking for trouble’ during his military career. The feisty, outspoken general, who commanded U.S. Marines in Haiti in 1916 and China in the 1920s, liked the portrait; his only complaint was that it showed only 10 of his 19 medals.
As his reputation soared, Pippin traveled to exhibition openings, was interviewed by visiting journalists and entertained collectors. He continued to live in West Chester, working at night under the unshaded bulb in the parlor and often by day in the little garden behind his house (now identified by a state historical marker). Uncertain how long Pippin’s success would last, his wife continued to work as a laundress, much to the painter’s chagrin.
World War II was deeply troubling to Pippin. While staunchly supporting the war effort, he saw that racial discrimination threatened national unity, a concept he expressed in Mr. Prejudice, painted in 1943. The work portrays the sinister title figure driving a wedge into a V-for-victory sign, while an evil Ku Klux Klansman and a slave master, whip in hand, stand by to help. Arrayed against these malevolent forces are a black Statue of Liberty, black and white machinists working in harmony and an integrated group of military men from both world wars. In 1945, Pippin returned to a direct military theme in the evocative Barracks. Depicting four GIs in the compartmentalized isolation of segregated army quarters, Pippin captured the together-yet-alone atmosphere many soldiers experienced in the military.
Pippin was worried that intolerance and racial justice would reign in the postwar world. Inspired by Isaiah’s Biblical prophecy about the lamb and the lion, he conveyed his vision of how the world ought to be in three paintings of his ‘Holy Mountain’ series. In each, a white-robed black youngster, standing with a shepherd’s crook, oversees a peaceful gathering of lambs, lions and other animals. This tranquil foreground contrasts with the dark woods behind, where soldiers are fighting and tiny white crosses suggest military cemeteries. Each picture bears an important date from World War II: June 6, 1944, for D-Day; December 7, 1944, for the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor; and August 9, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
In 1946, less than a decade after he catapulted to fame, Pippin died in his sleep of a stroke. He was buried in West Chester. A half century after his death, the work of this artist from no man’s land continues to move viewers with its direct honesty and emotional intensity. As befits an artist of his stature, Pippin’s paintings hang today in museums across the country and in distinguished private collections.
This article was written by Stephen May and originally published in the February 1998 issue of Military History.
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