HORACE PIPPIN 1888-1946
Oil on canvas, 11 X 14" (2 7.94 x 35.56 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 951-0-120
Prior to its acquisition in 1951, Horace Pippin's Zachariah had been on public view only once, in Pippin's solo exhibition, in 1944, at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in New York. 1 Unsold, it was returned to Pippins primary dealer, Robert Carlen, in Philadelphia. Two years later, Carlen received a letter with a two hundred dollar check from Carl Dennison, a young Ohio collector. Noting that he had heard about Pippin from his friend, the painter Robert Gwathmey, Dennison indicated his interest in purchasing a painting, leaving the choice up to Carlen. By 1947, when Selden Rodman published the first book on Pippin, Zachariah was listed in Dennison's collection. Four years later he sold it to the Butler Institute.
During World War 1, Pippin, an African American, served in a segregated regiment. Shot in the shoulder by a German sniper, he subsequently rekindled his boyhood interest in art, teaching himself painting as therapy for his injury. In 1938, four of his works were included in the Museum of Modern Art's Masters of Popular Painting. The Philadelphia collector, Dr. Albert Barnes, championed his work after seeing Pippin's solo exhibition, in 1940, at Philadelphia's Carlen Gallery.
As in Christ and the Woman of Samaria (1940, The Barnes Foundation) and Cabin in the Cotton III (1944, private collection), Pippin used his favored sunset sky for the setting of Zachariah. If the artist had a source for the narrative action of this painting, he never spoke of it for posterity. Zachariah depicts an elderly African American man standing stalwart in the center of the composition, supporting the weight of a wounded and ragged white man with one arm while, with his outstretched arm, he signals with a white cloth. It may be coincidental that the old mans bald crown and ring of fluffy white hair resemble illustrations of Joel Chandler Harris's fictional
storyteller, Uncle Remus. More relevant to Pippin's portrayal of an African American assisting a white man is its close thematic parallel to a sculpture by John Rogers, The Wounded Scout-A Friend in the Swamp (1864, New-York Historical Society), which depicts the rescue of an injured Union soldier by a runaway slave. It is not certain whether Pippin had seen Rogers's bronze sculpture because the characterization and placement of his figures are distinct from those of the sculpture, but the theme of assistance is similar.
Although Pippin painted numerous works showing the everyday activities of African Americans, except for The Whipping (1941, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Mr. Prejudice (1943, Philadelphia Museum of Art), he created relatively few images showing the abuses of slavery or the effects of racial prejudice. His 1942 series of paintings about the fiery abolitionist John Brown, as well as the Abraham Lincoln paintings done in 1942-43, attest to his abiding interest in the history of emancipation. Significantly, all of these works were done during World War 11, at a time when African Americans were again fighting for their country in segregated regiments, and when increased racial tensions were erupting at home in such incidents as the Detroit race riots of 1943. It seems likely that Pippin's motives for painting Zachariah were not dissimilar from the sentiments expressed by the poet Lydia Maria Childs, who on seeing Rogers's The Wounded Scout-A Friend in the Swamp, wrote: "There is more in that expressive group than the kind Negro and the helpless white, put on an equality by danger and suffering; it is a significant lesson of human brotherhood for all the coming ages."
JUDITH E. STEIN