Horace Pippin, Abe Lincoln’s First Book,1944, Oil on canvas
As a young girl, on many a Saturday, my friends and I would rove through the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, taking in the galleries that housed dinosaur fossils and stuffed birds, ethnographic collections of distant lands, and art works. On one of those days, I noticed Horace Pippin’s painting, Abe Lincoln’s First Book (1944), and it became one of my favorites. What first drew me to it was its inky, tarred darkness. I was pulled into the oily, cracked surfaces, which conveyed both a mood of deep night and safe enclosure. I had never imagined that any picture could be made with so many densities of black and brown. Aptly named, the picture portrayed young Abraham in a windowless attic, reached by a ladder poking through a square opening, where Pippin imagined him to have retreated each evening. As my eyes adjusted to Pippin’s darkness, I would make out the furniture that lined the room’s wall: a barrel, a ceramic container, a burlap bag, a tied rope, and a hand-hewn stool. But more immediate was the silhouette of the boy, sitting up from his corn husk bed, stretched over the floor boards, reaching out from under his bear blanket with an extended arm to hold a book. Illuminated by the red flame of a candle waxed to a plate, Abe’s figure, a white stone-paste silhouette tucked beneath the spiky fur of the blanket, expressed a moment of radiating gladness. His face, turned away, was captured in a smiling profile, his eyes focused on the book’s spine, his handle-like hand reaching in the darkness below the gabbled roof. I was struck by Pippin’s preference for angular, even knife-like, shapes and harsh environmental contrasts and as I became acquainted with other works from Pippin’s larger history of Lincoln, I began to understand that such forms conveyed numinous themes of intimate forgiveness.
Horace Pippin, Abraham Lincoln and His Father Building Their Cabin on Pigeon Creek, c. 1934. Oil on fabric (later mounted to composition board), 16 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches
Pippin set Abraham Lincoln and his Father Building Their Cabin on their newly acquired land, under a crisp fall sky with oak leaves floating to the ground in early autumn. Son standing in front of father, each faced in opposite directions, arms like levers, axes in motion, and fallen trees around them. In the background, the cross-cut logs of the half-built cabin faced the viewer, while angled stumps of the once forested land stretched to the edge of the forest. Pippin’s painting, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator Pardons the Sentry, took place under a canopied tent at dusk, a lantern hanging at its apex. The deep blue sky entered through its entrance. To its left stood two Union soldiers. To its right, their shadows cast against the tent wall, stood a general and Lincoln, his hands upon the shoulders of the kneeling guard. Anecdote tells us the guard had fallen asleep at his post. In all three works, Pippin imagined intimate moments that often go unrecognized. He made them important, treating them with a high degree of formal invention, with an ethic that recognized such positive actions as enactments, which, along with the important things of ‘history,’ changed our future.
Horace Pippin, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator Pardons the Sentry, 1942, Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches
Andrew Carnegie’s Museum was a gift box burgeoning with artifacts and knowledge to educate the city’s workers. It was established in 1895, a few years after the Homestead Strike, during which he broke the Amalgamated Craft Union. I learned later too, that when Pippin was making his paintings during the 1930’s-40’s, the steel unions were in the process of integrating their ranks with ethnic and black minorities. I still don’t know when the Carnegie bought Pippin’s painting, but as an African American veteran of WWI, Pippin must have worked with a consciousness of these contradictory cross currents of history in his vision of an intimately heroic Lincoln.
Rachel Youens, Backstage, 2017, Oil on linen, 22 x40 inches
Rachel Youens lives, works, and teaches in New York City. She is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and Brooklyn College.