Horace Pippin: From War to Peace Exhibit Showcases American History Through the Art of a Black WWI SoldierHistorians in the News
tags: military history, African American history, Museum, art history, World War 1
Horace Pippin (1888–1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, less than 25 years after the Civil War ended. He grew up in the village of Goshen, New York, 50 miles northwest of Manhattan, and attended segregated schools. For this reason, the seemingly neutral description of Pippin as a self-taught artist should be seen through the lens of America’s policy of segregation and government-maintained racial discrimination. The chances of Pippin attending a White-run art school were practically nonexistent during his lifetime. He was self-taught out of necessity, as the society in which he lived had shut most of its doors on him.
Before Pippin enlisted in the segregated Black and Puerto Rican 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed by the Germans the “Harlem Hellfighters,” he worked in a coal yard, as a hotel porter, and as a used-clothing peddler. The 369th Infantry Regiment became a distinct unit within the French army because White American army units would not fight alongside them; while in the unit, Pippin was seriously wounded in combat and received France’s Croix de Guerre. Shot in his right arm by a German sniper, he left the army and returned to West Chester, where he took up art as a therapy.
Due to his injury, Pippin had to move his right arm with his left arm, while holding the brush in his right hand. Through this method, he learned to paint. In 1931, after working in various mediums, including pyrography, he completed his first oil painting. Between 1931 and his death in 1946, he completed around 140 paintings. Many dealt with his experience as a soldier in World War I and the racism and segregation he encountered after returning to America, which — despite the contributions of Black soldiers — did not change.