Horace Pippin took up painting after being injured in World War I, in which he fought with the 369th Infantry, a regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Pippin’s grandparents were enslaved and his life was fraught with poverty, segregation, and racism. Pippin never received any training in the arts, and he used his left hand to guide his debilitated right one when he worked. His paintings address the horrors of war and ongoing issues of social injustice.
In Old Black Joe, Pippin sets an old Black man tethered to a white child against a backdrop of cotton fields. Pippin’s title is based on an 1860 ballad that romanticized slavery, which was revitalized around 1940. Pippin’s Old Black Joe confronts the song’s nostalgic view that servitude is made admirable by the loyalty and faith of the oppressed. But his subject’s lifetime of labor and deprivation have provided neither comfort nor security, and his body remains tied, both literally and metaphorically, to a cruel past. Only death will deliver him to freedom.
Old Black Joe
- 24 x 30 in. (61.0 x 76.1 cm.)
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
- Mediums Description
- oil on canvas
- Portrait male – unidentified – Joe
- Figure group
- Literature – character – Old Black Joe
- Architecture Exterior – domestic – house
- Object Number
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI