African American music and literature have always been appreciated since they draw on rich traditions of song, dance, and folk stories. But the visual arts had no such clear heritage, and recognition of great black sculptors and painters has been spotty until recent years, when the growth of black studies spurred a busy new trade in the work of African Americans—shows, auctions, and even forgeries. One knows that a school of art has arrived when crooks find it remunerative to create fakes by Romare Bearden or Horace Pippin.1

Two exhibits currently on tour have been attracting crowds and creating an awareness of the great works created in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence began its travels last year at the Phillips Collection in Washington and will reach New York’s Museum of Modern Art in January of 1995, having visited Milwaukee, Portland, Birmingham, and Saint Louis in the interval. I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in January of 1994, with stops at Chicago, Cincinnati, and Baltimore on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (opening February 1, 1995). New Yorkers will be able to see the exhibits in tandem—a useful exercise, since the two artists have often been contrasted as types of the “authentic” and “sophisticated” styles open to black artists.

I saw the Lawrence show in Washington and the Pippin in Chicago. The two make for endlessly suggestive comparisons and contrasts. The artists’ lives could not have been more different though their paintings have certain similarities. Both men preferred to work in small formats—tempera on hardboard for Lawrence, oil on fabric panels for Pippin. Both used expressive human figures, usually blacks, from American history and contemporary life. Their subjects were often the same—John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, black role models (Lawrence concentrated on Harriet Tubman, Pippin on Marian Anderson), black soldiers (in World War I for Pippin, World War II for Lawrence).

But these similarities are superficial. The core of each man’s art was distant from the other’s. Pippin, born earlier, came late to art and had essentially no formal training. Lawrence was precocious and had skilled instruction from the age of fifteen. He was at work on his brilliant series of forty-one panels devoted to the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1937, when he was barely twenty years old. In that year, Pippin, his elder by thirty years, was being given his first small public exhibition (sponsored by Andrew Wyeth, among others). Pippin, disabled in the First World War, had worked in isolation outside Philadelphia, while the teen-age Lawrence moved in a buzz of artists’ talk and activity in post-Renaissance Harlem. His first teacher was Charles H. Alston, whose house at 306 West 141st Street (known lovingly as “306”) was a salon for black artists, writers, and performers in the 1930s.

The differences between Lawrence and Pippin are apparent even when they seem to be closest to each other. Both men were intrigued by the power derived from books. Each portrayed a man sitting alone in a bare room creating his own future in communion with a book. Pippin’s John Brown (painted in 1942) sits facing us behind a table whose boards are as plain as the message this rectilinear Brown is taking in. His lifted eyes stare out and see nothing but the mission he absorbs, and the shadow his candle casts on the wall will move over the land. Lawrence’s Frederick Douglass (1939) sits in a room of perspectives gone awry, reading a rhetorical handbook. He has put down the heavy sledgehammer with which he banged together the rough scaffolding of the bench he reads at. His candle casts no shadow. It is set high on a shelf like an altar candle, the light of his learning as it grows.

Similar comparisons can be made picture by picture—of Pippin’s Amish Letter Writer (1940) leaning across the table in an energetic act of communication, with Lawrence’s John Brown Writing (1939), who tames the rebellious table on which he lays out words like blows. Or of Pippin’s Man on a Bench (1946), meditative under leaves about to fall, with Lawrence’s Tragedy and Comedy (1951-1952), two figures seated on a bench in a swirl of leaves, both arts alone and neglected.2 Or of Pippin’s World War II barracks bunks (painted in 1945) and Lawrence’s World War II ship bunks (1946-1947). Their self-portraits also tell different stories. Pippin sits in an open posture before the canvas we cannot see, with the right-angled determination of his own John Brown. Lawrence’s 1977 self-portrait, a gouache on paper, ponders a world of bewildering choices, four brushes in his hand, a seething set of images behind—he is a magician wondering what new spell to create.3


The mass of their work shows two different sensibilities at work, men of widely differing techniques and tastes, given dramatically different opportunities. Lawrence is still teaching and painting, while Pippin had little more than a decade of full-time painting before his death of a stroke at age fifty-eight (in 1946). Both grew up in needy and fatherless homes, Pippin in Goshen, New York, and Lawrence in Philadelphia. But Pippin was a poorly educated laborer who lived on veterans’ compensation after being wounded in World War I, while Lawrence’s mother moved him to Harlem when he was thirteen, where he haunted libraries and art galleries.

Pippin was a rural man, with a taste for the beautifully sleety woods of Pennsylvania. Lawrence has always been an urban painter—his earliest work looked at brothels, automobiles at a funeral, street theater. The contrast is sharpest in their technique, well described in both catalogs. Pippin’s was a result of the bullet that shattered his shoulder in the Argonne Forest. Though he had drawn pictures since his childhood, and kept a notebook of sketches from the front before the German sniper shot him, he could not work with his right arm for years after the war. When he did begin, it was with outlines burnt into pieces of spare wood—he used a hot fireplace poker, steadied under his disabled arm, while he maneuvered the wood about the poker’s point with his left hand. This clumsy device gave to his early work its paradoxically decisive roughness. Later, when he switched to oil on fabric, he still carved as he painted. Holding his right arm in his left, he painted details with a concentrated force. The “doilies” on the chairs of his domestic interiors look as if they had been crocheted with bayonets. Everything is willed into place. The paint is layered so that lines look incised into figures standing out in semi-relief. The bright colors of his still-lifes are at war with the almost gouging sense of strict form he gives to flowers. This vigor of expression goes with a sense of composition and color placement that is evident in the development of his final paintings from his careful pencil sketches.

Lawrence began his early work arranging figures in boxes to make up a kind of toy theater, and critics find a touch of the footlights still in his artfully arranged figures—though the jumbled planes of his work are meant to “break the box” of his first conceptions.

His major work has been in symbolic-narrative sequences—forty-one images devoted to Toussaint L’Ouverture, thirty-two to Frederick Douglass, thirty-one to Harriet Tubman, sixty to Migration (of blacks from the South), twenty-two to John Brown, fourteen to War, thirty to Harlem, eleven to Hospital, twelve to Theater, thirty to Struggle, seventeen to a second Harriet Tubman series, eight to the Book of Genesis, eight to Nigeria. With his astonishing facility, Lawrence composes the whole sequence in pencil sketches, the compositions rhythmically interrelated, meant to be seen as parts of a single artifact, like movements in a long musical development.

To insure the interrelatedness of the separate panels, Lawrence primed them all at once with several coats of gesso sanded smooth. Then he applied one color to all the blocks in the panels, so he could achieve chromatic balance across the whole series. Then other colors were applied in the same way—darker ones first, lighter ones progressively. When he applies green to any one panel, he is relating it to all the other green areas. The colors are restricted to primary ones; they get their complexity not by being mixed in the single picture but by the rich interplay of a basic palette used in endlessly new ways across the range of episodes. One can stroll past the panels in The Migration, noting (e.g.) the ironic movement of yellow-gold from a train’s bell to handcuffs to a policeman’s bullets. That is why the series should always be seen as a whole. Most of Lawrence’s series have been preserved in their integrity; but not The Migration. Half of this series (the even-numbered ones) belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, half to the Phillips Collection in Washington. The current exhibit marks the second time the panels have been reunited since their first exhibition in 1942. (In 1971, the two owners traded their panels for a show in each place.)4 When faced with the complete work, one can see not only the interplay of colors and forms (trace, for instance, the variations played on triangular composition), but the way Lawrence composes musically with rests, crescendos of action, and rondo-returns of subject matter.

Pippin and Lawrence present two different, equally successful, ways of depicting African American life. By the early 1940s, both men were respected, pursued by patrons, given more commissions than they could handle. Yet each one’s claims about authentic art were used against the other. Their personal troubles soon began to look like emblems of the problems faced by black visual artists. By 1946, Pippin had drunk himself toward an early death. By 1949, Lawrence had worried himself into a mental clinic. Neither could live easily with prosperity.


Pippin’s troubles were aggravated by an uneducated wife who felt challenged by his well-to-do new friends. She, too, had a mental breakdown, and Pippin “enjoyed the attentions of younger women” as Judith Stein delicately puts it in the catalog to the Pippin show. Lawrence, though supported by his wife, the gorgeous Gwendolyn Knight, a fellow painter, seemed trapped in contradictory roles—a situation eerily suggested in his 1954 self-portrait as a mask among masks.5 Though Lawrence recovered after a nine-month stay at Hillside Hospital in Queens (and is still going strong at seventy-six), critics have always had certain reservations about his use of non-African sources. The catalog for the current Pippin show quotes an Art Digest article praising Pippin’s works because “they lack the sophisticated ‘primitivism’ seen so often among school-trained pretenders” (read: Lawrence). Pippin was offered as a real primitive not a fake one—which is why Robert Coates of The New Yorker preferred Pippin who “is, indeed, as he is customarily classified, a primitive.” Albert Barnes, too, promoted Pippin (when he bought his works for the Barnes Collection) as one whose vision was not “an attenuated and diluted expression of the white man.” What Pippin offered was echt-black.

Yet Pippin had no specifically black art to draw on as he developed his skills. He relied on religious engravings, posters, advertisements. The paradox is that this “primitive” artist knew mainly commercial art. In this, he was no different from “Grandma Moses,” however his stark and strong works differ from her fussing with details.

Was Lawrence more “authentic” than Pippin? He, after all, derived only limited aspects of his style from African-influenced artists. He sometimes used flat silhouette figures, like those Aaron Douglas took from Egyptian reliefs. But Lawrence was highly eclectic. He tapped sources as diverse as Goya’s antiwar etchings and the cartoons of George Grosz (a teacher of Lawrence’s friend Romare Bearden).6

What constitutes “authentic” black art was a matter of heated debate in the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance. The philosopher Alain Locke, who made himself the principal theoretician of the Renaissance, said that Africanism was the touchstone of authenticity. But only cosmopolitans like Locke—who first encountered African art in England during his Rhodes scholar years—had easy access to Af- rican art in the first years of the century.

The problem is stated indirectly in the important history of African American art by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson. The book begins with an introduction devoted to African sculpture—which then disappears until the book moves into the twentieth century. Every major black artist of the nineteenth century was academically trained, and shows no influence from Africa. Robert S. Duncanson was a landscape painter who imitated Thomas Cole. Edmonia Lewis was a neo-classical sculptor of the Hiram Powers school. Edward Bannister imitated William Morris Hunt. Henry Ossawa Tanner, a pupil of Thomas Eakins, carried symbolic realism into the area of biblical paintings from Palestine.

What to do with these “inauthentic” artists? Alain Locke attacked them—especially the most successful one, Tanner—for playing the white man’s game.7 Others now try to find some “subversive” black message hidden in their art as the only way to rescue their memory. In The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Joseph Ketner takes Robert S. Duncanson’s idyllic pictures of classical ruins as messages on the fall of slaveholding cultures. He even presents the 1861 Land of the Lotus Eaters, now in the King of Sweden’s collection, as a parable to show that slaves can drug their masters. The problem with this is that Duncanson, a Philadelphia artist, patterned the meeting of Odysseus with the Lotus Eaters after Benjamin West’s picture of William Penn meeting peaceable Indians.

Tanner, whose biblical paintings were original and still disturbing, is now presented in Bearden and Henderson’s history as a painter of African American life on the strength of two paintings he did during a return to America for the World Columbian Exposition. But these two works—The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor—have clear models in the work of Tanner’s two (white) teachers, in Thomas Eakins’s Negro Boy Dancing and Thomas Hovenden’s I’s So Happy! 8 Tanner never returned to these themes. His own genius flourished in the Middle East, which he was able to visit with a Jewish patron’s assistance.

In the 1920s, such artistic development was declared renegade. When Locke met Lois Mailou Jones on the campus of Howard University, he rebuked her for not painting African subjects.9 That attitude was still being expressed in 1970, when a conference on black art issued a manifesto beginning: “Black art should be concerned with the African Heritage…”10

The irony—often mentioned at the time—was that the call for authentic African roots came from people who often felt deracinated themselves. The Harlem Renaissance leaders were largely college-educated world travelers—people with doctorates, like Locke; college teachers; scholars and critics.11 Wanting “the race” to put its best foot forward, they resembled the superlatively proper people photographed in James Van Der Zee’s Harlem studio—late-Victorian ladies and gentlemen, stiff in their finery. 12

Locke felt that Africa could bring dignity to the American Negro. He disapproved of the raucous and undisciplined nature of jazz—only the spirituals, he said, had kept the classic restraint of African art. He thought of Africa primarily with regard to its sculpture, an art of economy and balance, and boasted that this art had been “certified” by European artists like Picasso and Matisse.13 A “race memory” of such purity had to be made pristine again after the corruption foisted on blacks by an American culture that wanted minstrel-show vulgarities as the only Negro art. Africa was brought in to rebuke American blacks:

The characteristic African art expressions are rigid, controlled, disciplined, abstract, heavily conventionalized; those of the Aframerican,—free, exuberant, emotional, sentimental and human. Only by the misinterpretation of the African spirit, can one claim any emotional kinship between them—for the spirit of African expression, by and large, is disciplined, sophisticated, laconic and fatalistic. The emotional temper of the American Negro is exactly opposite.14

Locke’s influence, largely benign in the 1920s, had nonetheless a thought-police side to it. He prescribed the proper path for black artists, telling Duke Ellington that he should lift jazz to a higher use of folk music: “The New World Symphony stands there, a largely unheeded musical sign-post pointing the correct way to Parnassus.” Despite Ellington’s more “classical” works, like Creole Rhapsody, Locke feared that Ellington “may betray his uniqueness for popularity, be brought down to the level of orthodox dance music.”15 Locke collaborated with the demanding white patron Charlotte Mason in trying to direct the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston away from the musical theater and toward pure black expressions of “folk genius.”16

Despite these efforts to dictate a creed of Negritude, the best artists—like William H. Johnson and Romare Bearden—went their own unpredictable way. And it did not hurt Johnson that he was for a long time under the influence of the non-African artist Chaim Soutine; just as George Grosz’s tutelage did not harm Bearden.17 The most versatile of the black artists to emerge from the “306” group in the 1930s, Bearden was scornful of the rigid frame Locke wanted to put around African American artifacts.18

In Bearden’s posthumously published history of African American art, written in collaboration with Harry Henderson, Bearden recalls the bitter fights over the white patronage offered to black artists. The prizes set up by William E. Harmon caused endless wrangling. Bearden pointed out at the time that Mary Beattie Brady, the director of the Harmon Foundation, had no art training at all—she had become important to Harmon, a successful realtor, for her work in getting children’s playgrounds into cities as a complement to real-estate development.19 Her lack of experience made her depend on Alain Locke’s advice and manipulation.

Bearden’s book is valuable for its personal insights. He knew most of the twentieth-century artists he describes, and his own eclecticism makes him treat others with an equitable appreciation of their differences. Bearden had a confidence based partly on his parents’ status in the black aristocracy of Charlotte, North Carolina. Both were college graduates, and his mother was a journalist friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. They took the young Romare to live in Harlem, and he graduated from NYU in 1935. Bearden was a world traveler who experimented in many media. He shows how contradictory were some of the demands put on artists by their patrons. Albert Barnes, for instance, praised Pippin for his “primitive” strength but wanted him to take art lessons at the Barnes school. Lawrence and others escaped the demands of such well-meaning paternalists when the government offered them support through the Work Projects Administration.

The opportunity to study Lawrence and Pippin together shows that neither artist succeeds or fails by having a “correct” approach to Negritude—though that is a lesson some people resist. I heard white viewers reading resentment into Pippin’s portraits of white people, a resentment clearly not there in the examples on display. Pippin’s strength comes from his control of the material he mastered. Like Lawrence, he fails at larger work. The only embarrassing painting in the current show is the largest one (36 x 48 inches)—a Temptation of Saint Anthony commissioned by Hollywood in 1946 for possible use in a film. Lawrence, too, fails when he works to a large scale—as in the mosaic for Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. The flat color areas of his small boards look dead on the wall of the library’s lobby. The largest format he seems comfortable with is the occasional poster, like the stunning one for the 1972 Olympics (shown in the Seattle prints exhibit).

Even in the smaller format, Lawrence has had to struggle to retain his boldly simple compositions from a creeping tendency toward clutter—which Bearden considers a periodic failure of confidence in his own unique vision. The later Harriet Tubman pictures, done for a children’s book, lack the stark energy and certitude of the early series, which is perhaps Lawrence’s finest work.20

Pippin, in his short time, created haunting images like the ambitious John Brown Going To His Hanging (1942), which belongs to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. On a crisp day, people crowd around the black cart drawn by white horses. A few brown leaves hang on the trees, ready to drop. One feels they will fall with an iron clang, like omens. Only one woman turns and looks out at us with an accusing sorrow—Pippin’s mother.

No exhibits are more likely to make the important point that black art has been created not to a program or racial thesis but by individual genius facing particular choices. This work is great not because it is black art but because it is black art.

This Issue

August 11, 1994