Skip to content Skip to footer
#SeeingtheBarnes

Horace Pippin. Supper Time (detail), c. 1940. Oil on burnt-wood panel. BF985. Public Domain.

About Research Notes

Did you know that we are always trying to learn more about our art collection? The Barnes has a team of curators, scholars, conservators, and archivists who actively research the treasured works on view in our galleries. We work continually to link collection objects to their original histories, and almost every day we uncover something new—from small details like when a piece entered the collection, to larger discoveries like unknown sketches on the backs of two Cézannes!

We also study our own history as an institution. The Barnes archives, with material dating back to 1902, is a wealth of information about works in the collection—and about the ideas and people that formed it.

Research Notes presents some of our most recent discoveries and interpretations. Read the newest entry below, and keep scrolling for past notes.

Digging Deeper into Horace Pippins’s Supper Time

Libby Kandel, Graduate Research Intern
Fall/Winter 2022

Though Dr. Albert Barnes famously collected European modernist painters, he was also an avid supporter of artists closer to home. Room 12 of the Barnes collection, also known as the American Room, features ensembles that showcase Dr. Barnes’s love and support of contemporary American art. Included in Room 12 is Supper Time, a small painting of a family enjoying a meal together on a snowy winter night. It is one of three paintings by the artist Horace Pippin hanging in the gallery and has recently been the subject of a Barnes research project.

 

The east wall of Room 12. The paintings in the same row as Supper Time are (from left) Giving Thanks and Christ and the Woman of Samaria, also by Horace Pippin. In the bottom row, paintings by Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Ernest Lawson flank a work by Jules Pascin.

Who Was Horace Pippin?

Horace Pippin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1888. He had no formal art education or training but began drawing and experimenting with crayons as a small child.¹ Toward the end of his life, he described his artistry as a “talent that [God] has given me from birth.”² In his twenties, Pippin enlisted in World War I, fighting in the 369th Regiment—also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” one of the first army units predominantly made up of men of color.³ During his recovery from an injury to his dominant arm in combat, Pippin began drawing on cigar boxes with charcoal as a means to engage with what he described as “the things that [he] had always loved to do.”⁴ This practice led to a greater interest in pyrography, also known as pokerwork or wood burning, in which Pippin would use a heated tool to incise marks into a wood panel.⁵

 

Horace Pippin. Self-Portrait, 1941. Oil on canvas board. Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1942

In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Pippin became a regular fixture in American art exhibitions. After a solo exhibition at the Chester Counter Community Center in 1937, he garnered a national profile as the only artist of color to be included in MoMA’s 1938 exhibition Masters of Popular Painting.⁶ Despite the segregationist practices of the American art world in the interwar period, Pippin’s work was regularly included in American art exhibitions at powerful institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.⁷ Pippin also exhibited his work in the historically Black spaces of Atlanta University and Philadelphia’s Pyramid Club, and in trailblazing exhibitions of Black art at the University of Modern Art in Boston and other influential cultural organizations.⁸ Alain Locke—the philosopher, scholar, and thinker most widely known for his founding role in the New Negro Movement—considered Pippin a key figure in his intellectual conception of the importance and aesthetic quality of Black folk art.⁹

Pippin and Dr. Barnes

Pippin’s ascent in the art world is often credited to the art critic Christian Brinton. As the story goes, Brinton spotted Pippin’s work in the window of a local store in West Chester.¹⁰ Art historian Jennifer James Marshall argues that this story structures a relationship between Pippin and Brinton that implies Pippin’s artistic talent would not have been discovered without Brinton’s discerning eye; indeed, the two were so connected that Brinton was even given credit in Pippin’s short obituary in the New York Times.¹¹ Furthermore, Brinton is positioned as having seen something in Pippin’s talent that the artist’s friends, family, and neighbors had not—thereby implying that Brinton’s expensive big-city taste was somehow better and more evolved.

Dr. Barnes and Pippin met through Robert Carlen, a Philadelphia-based art gallerist and dealer. Barnes began to purchase Pippin’s works in 1940 and soon after invited him to study at his foundation.¹² Barnes considered his patronage of Pippin integral to the artist’s success.¹³ In his catalogue essay for Pippin’s second show at Carlen Galleries, Barnes claimed there was only “one explanation” for the seemingly more mature quality to his work: “Pippin has moved from his earlier limited world into a richer environment filled with the ideas and feelings of great painters of the past and present.”¹⁴ The richer environment that Barnes is referring to here is the galleries of his own collection.

 

Horace Pippin. Supper Time, c. 1940. Oil on burnt-wood panel. BF985

A Closer Look at Supper Time

Supper Time is a simple composition depicting a family around the dinner table. The palette is limited, with only five colors present in the image: white, pink, blue, black, and brown. Pippin cleverly used the underlying wood panel for the table’s surface, the skin of the figures, and the window on the right-hand side. Lines incised with a burning tool delineate the transitions between the human skin and the windowpane. The image has a sort of symmetry, with bright white accents flanking both sides of the painting. The balance pulls the eye to the center of the scene, focusing on the relationships between the figures. The family members interact with each other, giving an emotional tenderness to the scene. The child reaches for a glass of milk while the father figure gazes warmly over his cup of coffee. His expression is the only visible one in the composition, and Pippin took the time to burn a massive smile into his face.

Supper Time, painted in 1940 at the height of Pippin’s relationship with Dr. Barnes, marks a transitional moment in the artist's career. As Pippin had started moving from burnt-wood panels to canvas supports at this time, Supper Time provides a mature example of his pyrographic practice. Earlier works, such as We Were On His Trail As the Sun Went Down (The Bear Hunt) (c. 1925–30, Chester County Historical Society), also use unfinished wood to construct elements of the composition, seen in the figure of the bear, pieces of wood, and small rocks in the foreground. Colors, much like in Supper Time, are minimal and blocky.

However, Supper Time demonstrates a more sophisticated use of pyrography. Pippin combined different techniques, burning lines deep into the panel and creating others that only kiss the surface. This textured layering demonstrates that the artist's understanding of the medium and skill had grown significantly since The Bear Hunt, wherein his use of burnt line was limited to outlines of shapes and forms. Pippin also added a drawer to the table in Supper Time, adding depth and space through a minimal, modernist intervention of simple lines.¹⁵

Detail of the table, showing small lines lightly singed across the surface of the wood.

Detail of drawer.

The interior scene of Supper Time has been described as “spare,” which was interpreted as a signifier of low socio-economic status.¹⁶ The assumption in the scholarship is that the simple interior demonstrates that the family could not afford anything else to add to their home. But remember that Pippin had just spent significant time at the Barnes looking at and learning from its collection of European modernist painters. Dr. Barnes commented on the impact of the experience on Pippin’s artistic style, writing, “An instance of this direction in Pippin is his simplified drawing and the utilization of bright, exotic color, for the depiction of objects and for the formation of compartmental patterns that contribute to the character of the particular type of composition.”¹⁷ Pippin, despite being a self-taught artist, understood artistic trends and incorporated them into his own works. In the case of a canonized white artist with formal art education like Matisse, sparse line would not necessarily be interpreted as an indicator of a financially depressed vignette; the sparse line in Pippin’s work should be entertained as an engagement with modernist painting.

So, What Is the Artistic Style or Movement of Supper Time?

Pippin’s unique use of material and distinct style has led art historians to classify him as either a folk artist or a modernist painter. Both arguments have their merits. Anne Monahan argues that Pippin’s contemporaries saw him as a modernist painter and that reclaiming his space in the canon of American modernism is a way to push back against the discrimination that Black self-taught artists have seen from the privileged authors of art history.¹⁸

But, as Katherine Jentleson points out, the term “folk art” has only recently attained a negative connotation.¹⁹ In reality, folk art in the 1930s and ’40s was an extremely exciting moment of creation and making for people of color who had traditionally been excluded from white artistic spaces and practices.²⁰ Folk art of the 1930s was tied with nationalism: artists hoped to generate works that had a distinctly American style, without influence from European artists and designers.²¹ The trend toward nationalist, American art transcended traditional boundaries set between high art and popular culture. Consider, for example, Holger Cahill, a MoMA curator who later became the director of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and a sponsor of Pippin’s first exhibition at Carlen Galleries in 1940.²² Not only was he involved in an influential institution, but he also worked with government-subsidized art programs and championed the work of a self-taught artist. Cahill is an example of the ways in which the rigid separations between self-taught art, modernist art, and popular culture that exist today may not have been present 100 years ago.

The United States also saw a resurgence of racist, nativist activity during the period of Pippin’s career. The Ku Klux Klan also returned to national prominence in the 1910s and ’20s; it was a politically savvy organization that knew how to manipulate the mass cultural apparatus and appeal to the populous.²³ Pippin, upon his injury in World War I, returned home to this dominant culture of white supremacy. Simultaneously in American culture, however, was the emergence of a Black intellectual movement to recognize and valorize the importance of Black self-taught art and craft. The New Negro Movement, spearheaded by Alain Locke, acknowledged the lasting effects of enslavement and the Civil War on opportunities for Black artists and creators as well as the conservation of important representative objects for African American cultural heritage.²⁴ Locke asserted for the elimination of racialized canons, arguing that any art produced in the United States should be representative of a greater American culture, a culture that is mixed race. He wrote:

We must not expect the work of the Negro artist to be too different from that of his fellow-artists. Product of the same social and cultural soil, our art has an equal right and obligation to be typically American at the same time that it strives to be typical and representative of the Negro; and that, indeed, if the evidence is rightly read, we believe it already is, and promises even more to be.²⁵

Locke’s writing points to a tension that relates to Pippin, who is caught in the debate between self-taught artist and modernist painter. The trajectories of these artists have been rigidly separated, but, as Locke points out, they are all the product of the same social and cultural soil. Pippin’s work was interacting and engaging with a global art world: he does not fit into an exact classification, movement, or style of making—but does he need to?

Endnotes

Past Research Notes

July 2022

Hidden Gems: Tiny Bronze Horses and Bulls from Ancient Greece

Small but mighty, these animal figurines are some of the oldest objects in the Barnes collection. What makes them special, and how did these ancient Greek objects find their way into the Barnes collection?

May 2022

The Life and Death of Tantwenemherti: Reconstructing an Egyptian Priestess’s Coffin

Removing this coffin fragment from its frame led to new discoveries about the object and the woman for whom it was made.

March 2022

The Origin of Room 4's Iron Bands

A fascinating architectural investigation helps us discover the original location of two pieces of French metalwork.

December 2021

Holy Cow! Uncovering an Egyptian Glass Forgery

Nearly any collection of Egyptian objects could have a fake ancient artifact hidden in its midst. Forgeries are intended to deceive—to pass as authentic works by specific artists or belonging to specific cultural traditions. Forgeries of Egyptian objects are common, with a long history that continues even today.

July 2021

Alexis Gritchenko at the Barnes Foundation

New research helps identify previously unknown sites in Gritchenko's paintings.

May 2021

From Thebes to Philadelphia: Tracing the Provenance of an Egyptian Relief

See how a chance discovery allowed us to trace a Barnes relief back to its original context in an Egyptian temple and to uncover more details of the object’s history.

December 2020

de Chirico’s Alexandros

Alexandros marked a stylistic departure for painter Giorgio de Chirico, who was largely known for his metaphysical works. Is there more beneath the surface of this seemingly straightforward scene?

Giorgio de Chirico. Alexandros, 1935. BF960. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

September 2020

Egyptomania and the Barnes Collection

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Egyptomania swept the nation—and had a major effect on Dr. Barnes’s collection.

Egyptian. Relief from the Tomb of Khay, 1279–1213 BCE. A107. Public Domain.

May 2020

Violette before Barnes

Thanks to newspaper accounts, materials in our archives, and her own writings, Violette de Mazia’s impact and legacy are clear. But who was Violette before the Barnes?

Unidentified photographer. Violette de Mazia, Angelo Pinto, and others under Seated Riffian (detail). c. 1930s. Violette de Mazia Collection. Barnes Foundation Archives

March 2020

de Chirico’s The Mysterious Swan

A close look at this enigmatic painting by the prolific Italian artist reveals both a pastiche of childhood memories and his philosophy of metaphysics.

January 2020

Early American Glass in the Barnes Collection

Though sometimes overlooked, the glass objects within the Pennsylvania German cupboard in Room 19 are examples of one of America’s earliest craft forms

November 2019

Dr. Barnes’s Pretzel Tankard

Probably used for beer or cider, the tankard bears the emblem of the bakers’ guild and the inscription: “May God in Heaven bless the field / Bake big bread so that we may make a little money.”

September 2019

Dr. Barnes, Joan Miró, and the Spanish Civil War

If Miró's imagery seems to emerge from the realm of the unconscious, it is at the same time very connected to real-world events.

July 2019

Demuth’s Count Muffat’s First View of Nana at the Theatre

A newspaper critic noted that “whoever enjoys a whimsical imagination will revel in Mr. Demuth’s illustrations of Zola’s Nana... The man who obtains this group of illustrations will be a lucky man.” In March 1922, Dr. Barnes was that lucky man.

May 2019

Tall Case Clock

The sheer number of clocks collected by Dr. Barnes suggests he had an interest beyond timekeeping.

March 2019

Veronese's Baptism of Christ

The Carnegie Museum wanted to know: Did this painting once belong to the Earl of Northbrook's collection of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, and French old masters?

January 2019

Starnina’s Head of an Angel

How did art historians piece together the mystery behind this panel? A quasi-forensic search spanning decades was involved.

October 2018

de Chirico’s Horses of Tragedy

The painting, which depicts a group of horses in a mysterious architectural landscape, is most likely related to images of the Christian apocalypse, which de Chirico may have seen as connected to the rise of fascism after World War I.