Horace Pippin’s Self Portraits
Anne Monahan —
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) painted two self-portraits in the 1940s on his way to becoming the decade’s most successful black artist. Both evince an indifference to illusionistic perspective in line with modern aesthetics, even as his self-taught pedigree appealed to those wary of avant garde styles and politics. He made the first in 1941 in the midst of his breakneck ascent, and its exhibition record and 1942 purchase by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery attest to his rising stock at home and abroad. He made the second a few years later, when he had reached cruising altitude, and the result was a decidedly private affair: the tiny painting’s first exhibition was posthumous, lent by the art patron and socialite Mrs. Jane Hamilton (later Jane Kendall Gingrich), with whom he had been friendly for years. A closer look reveals the paintings to be more complex interventions in the construction of American and African American identity than has been previously recognized, crystallizing a central theme of Horace Pippin, American Modern.
Self Portrait (1941)
The almost full-length painting pictures Pippin as the artist he was, comfortable with the tools of his trade. The figure’s props, skin color, and confidence identify him as a serious painter of African descent, a cohort then receiving a measure of overdue attention in the realm of contemporary art. The open shirt collar and rolled sleeves befit an “artist of the people,” as autodidacts were then sometimes advertised. His disproportionately small right arm suggests the atrophy that followed his combat injury in World War I, and the green paintbrush points to art making’s regenerative role in transcending that physical and psychic damage. Finally, the canvas’s exposed stretcher, keys, and tacking edge (the view available to an artist working at a mirror) demonstrate his familiarity with art’s traditional poses, methods, and materials, and a design sensibility that animates the otherwise stable composition with asymmetry and high-contrast detail. The black keys and gray stretcher bars are telling in this regard, since in practice they would typically have been unpainted wood.
The composition qualifies as a “professional self-portrait,” a centuries-old type that depicts an artist at work, presumably on the image we see, and so encodes a self-reflexivity that implies veracity. In this case, that veracity is illusory because the painting’s support is actually a commercial canvas board (canvas-wrapped cardboard), for which stretchers and keys are unnecessary. That reality short-circuits the documentary convention on which the image plays—an aspect of the picture that has long gone unnoted. Instead of a faithful record of its own creation, Self-Portrait is a canny invention that advertises its author’s agency and professional persona at a pivotal moment in his career. In that respect, it aligns comfortably with self-portraiture’s historical role as an instrument of self-fashioning, even as it upends expectations of autodidacts’ putative transparency.
Self Portrait II (1944)
Only slightly larger than a postcard, Pippin’s second pass at self-portraiture represents him as a man, full stop, turned out in the professional drag of the day (see featured image at the top of this post). Its petite size, bust-length format, and formally dressed subject evoke a carte de visite, the small portrait photographs widely exchanged as mementos in the nineteenth century. In 1863, Oliver Wendell Holmes had described them as the “social currency, the sentimental ‘Green-backs’ of civilization,” and it is tempting to see Self Portrait II as a bespoke analogue, especially given Pippin’s longstanding interest in gift exchange and his painting’s dearth of sales records. The idea gains momentum when you recognize the painting on the left in The Den of 1945, which was reportedly a gift for the aforementioned Jane Hamilton. As a birthday surprise, he painted the library in her posh colonial farmhouse on Philadelphia’s Main Line—a room that held two of his paintings and that he apparently knew well enough to render from memory.
While Pippin made The Den—and maybe Self-Portrait II—to honor his relationship with the collector, the former painting has the unexpected benefit of documenting his framing preference for the latter. According to archival photographs of her home, the curvy, white border he marked around the little rectangle in The Den matches frames on three of his paintings in her home: Self-Portrait II and Sleepers in the library, and Victorian Interior I in the living room. The current frames, selected by the Metropolitan Museum’s curatorial staff in the 1980s, can inform our experience of the work in underacknowledged ways. See, for example, the imposing black-and-gold frame on Self-Portrait II, which bears little in common with the one Pippin knew.
I chose Self-Portrait II as the cover of Horace Pippin, American Modern because the little painting sits at the intersection of several underappreciated avenues in his career: its composition aligns with modernist aesthetics, its likeness represents him as a man of his time, and its provenance bespeaks his social savvy. He would probably be surprised to see it reproduced unframed, but that view highlights his evolving professional consciousness. In the late 1930s, as a serious market was developing for his work, he began to leave an unpainted margin around his compositions to safeguard the integrity of his imagery from the frame’s eventual impingement. This unmediated view allows us to see his painting as he might have done at the easel, before decades of imaginative intervention and projection—like those materialized in Self Portrait II’s dark frame—began clouding our sense of him and his project.
Anne Monahan is an art historian based in New York.
Anne will give a gallery talk on Horace Pippin in the American Wing, Gallery 751 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday, February 28, 2020 at 6:30pm.