The artist Horace Pippin has been embraced by the St. Louis Art Museum and that is an occasion in which all of us should find joy at this season – along with plenty of challenging ideas and issues to contemplate.
A 16-by-20 inch, oil-on-fabric painting by Pippin has been purchased by the museum for its permanent collection. It’s not a pretty picture; rather, it’s rich in narrative and meaning, and presents a deeply affecting and disturbing scene of domestic complexity. Even the frame in its slightly battered condition lends a special authenticity to the picture.
The little children at the family’s table are served their Sunday breakfast by their mother. The father, disheveled, holds himself apart and looks on with a sidelong glance; the mother holds out a dish of food to her children as one might present an offering to a god. A horseshoe hangs over the door, providing protection for the family and making a wish for good luck. One imagines the family will need both.
The museum’s board of commissioners approved the purchase of the picture Monday night, and the press was told of the acquisition at a meeting on Tuesday at the museum. The $1.5 million price tag on “Sunday Morning Breakfast” (1943) by the Pennsylvania-born African-American artist is of little significance, especially in a time when the post-recession art market seems to exist in a continual state of financial volcanism and prices exceeding $100 million are not rare.
What does matter, however, is that Pippin’s place in the firmament of the fine arts is ever more solid. Acquisition by a museum such as St. Louis’ is appreciated and embraced for numerous reasons – the interplay of the naïf and the abstract for example, and the clear documentary values revealing how African Americans lived – and suffered.
Any attempt to romanticize it is wrong. It is radiant, however, in the way a revelatory scene can be. “Sunday Morning Breakfast” serves as a reminder of the economic disparities that existed in American society then, and it is a reminder too of the old and wretched reality about change – that the more things seem to be different, the more they remain in fact the same.
About the artist
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) -- born in Pennsylvania and reared in New York State -- certainly was on the blistering end of American racism. He left a segregated education in Goshen, N.Y., when he was 15, the better to support his mother. In this pursuit, he was employed at various jobs – as a hotel porter at one time, as a second-hand clothing peddler at another. When America entered World War I, he fought with the famously brave Harlem Hellfighters, a unit in the American armed forces, one that was segregated from the white American soldiers sent to fight with the foreign French. For a time, the Hellfighters as a unit were dispatched to fight with the French forces.
Wikipedia reports Pippin’s saying, “During the war, I did not care what or where I went. I asked God to help me, and he did so. And that is the way I came through that terrible and Hellish place. For the whole entire battlefield was hell, so it was no place for any human being to be.”
Part of this particular hell was Pippin’s being wounded by sniper fire, leaving his right arm nearly unusable. But he was no quitter. After the hellishness of the war, Pippin began painting, supporting his right arm with his left, in the hope of strengthening his right arm, and within limits this therapy worked. When he was 30, he was occupationally transformed and could legitimately call himself a painter. He produced 140 paintings before his death-- "Sunday Morning Breakfast" in 1943 -- plus drawings. From the war, he brought him an invaluable illustrated journal about life in the trenches.
He was not without honor in his own time. He had a number of well-heeled and famous supporters -- the illustrator and painter N.C. Wyeth was one of them, and Dr. Albert Barnes, the eccentric collector and creator of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, was another. Pippin studied in the 1931-’40 academic year at the foundation.
Pippin got his high-profile break when he was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1938 exhibition, “Masters of Popular Art.” The museum’s biographical handout described him as a “Disabled Negro war veteran,” and quoted Pippin saying of his art, “The pictures ... come to me in my mind, and if to me it is a worthwhile picture, I paint it. I go over that picture in my mind several times and when I am ready to paint it I have all the details that I need. I take my time and examine every coat of paint carefully and to be sure that the exact color which I have in mind is satisfactory to me. ... My opinion of art is that a man should have love for it, because my idea is that he paints from his heart and mind."
Coming in 2016
Besides his announcement of purchase of the Pippin painting, which greatly increases the museum’s depth in works of art representing African-American artists, museum director Brent Benjamin provided information on a number of other exhibitions to be presented in 2016 on Art Hill.
“A Decade of Collecting Prints, Drawings and Photographs” opens Jan. 29. It celebrates acquisitions of works on paper made in the last decade, and includes a scene of the Nativity by Martin Schongauer from 1471; Dorothea Lange’s classic “Migrant Mother,” circa 1936; and an etching of Rembrandt’s depicting three trees in a landscape that should be a show stopper.
“St. Louis Modern,” the museum’s exhibition of modernist design from the mid-20th century, continues through Jan. 31, and a related show, “Blow-Up: Graphic Abstraction in 1960s Design,” will be at the museum through March 20.
Currents 111 features the eclectic and exuberant work of brothers Steven and William Ladd, formerly of St. Louis, now based in New York. It will come down on St. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. The next Currents show, Number 112, will show Andrea Stanislav’s installations from March 24 to June 19.
For years, a certain devoted segment of the St. Louis museum-going public has longed to see the legendary Oriental rugs collected by James Ballard. Come March 6, all of us of that disposition will be shown 51 carpets in an exhibition called “The Carpet and the Connoisseur” as well as extremely rare and fascinating Persian pleasure tents. The show runs through May 8.
In 2010, Charles and Rosalyn Lowenhaupt presented the museum with a treasury of Japanese works of art documenting modern Japan’s development as a military power. The donation included an amazing group of 1357 prints and related works of art. The lion’s share of the content of “Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan” is drawn from this beneficence.
“Self-Taught Genius,” a show of American Folk Art, goes up on June 19 and continues through Sept. 11. “Goya: The Disasters of War” will be shown during the summer and fall of 2016.