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Veterans Day: Letters from Home

During the months when my daughter’s daycare was closed due to the pandemic, as I “balanced” work and childcare, I often found myself depleted and detached by the end of the day. Looking at Horace Pippin’s painting School Studies, I am drawn in by the prominent seated figure on the right, a mother or caretaker for the two children. Turned away from them, she has created her own space, separate from her surroundings and from me, the viewer. She smokes a pipe and disconnects from everything and everyone in the room.

The weary woman, the two young children: the honesty of the portrayal of this moment in family life resonates. Some of Pippin’s other domestic interiors present families interacting, by sharing a meal or playing a game, for example. But School Studies speaks to other realities: overwhelm, solitude, the need to gather ourselves before getting back to work.

Painted with small areas of mostly flat color, this horizontal painting shows three brown-skinned people in the room of a home with pale gray walls and wood floors. To our right, a woman wears slate-gray skirt, a white apron and shawl, and a red headscarf with black and white polka dots. She sits in a black wooden chair facing our right in profile, smoking a pipe. A steaming kettle and bright green coffee pot sit on a black wood stove behind and to the right of the woman, with firewood stacked to the right. A clock or timer and an oil lamp sit on a red shelf above the stove and the woman’s head. Beneath her feet is one of three rectangular area rugs with a pattern of green, black, white, and red stripes. A window at the center of the back wall of the room is mostly covered by a dark green curtain. The panes along the bottom are black and lined with white, suggesting snow or frost. A bucket and pewter-colored, shallow bowl sit on a bench on the second striped rug under the window. To our left, a small person standing on the third patterned rug wears short black pants, stockings, and suspenders over a white shirt. That person turns away from us and rests elbows near a lit candle on a table with a red and gray checkered tablecloth. The third person, possibly a young girl, sits on a blanket or a fourth rug patterned with yellow, red, black, and green triangles. That young girl wears a gray dress and black shoes. She cradles a baby doll, and a white dog, perhaps a stuffed animal, sits next to her. A few cracks in the wall near the window expose horizontal bands, perhaps narrow wooden boards under damaged plaster. The artist signed the work with black letters in the lower right corner: “H. PiPPiN.”

Horace Pippin, School Studies, 1944, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.42.1

Pippin completed this painting during World War II, in 1944. While I see my own fatigue reflected in the woman’s body language, I can also see the exhaustion and loneliness I imagine my grandmother felt during the four years that my grandfather served on active army duty in the same war. She was home with twin toddlers (my uncles), mostly in south Texas and sometimes with family in Iowa. Drafted in early 1941, before the United States entered the war, my grandfather was later deployed to North Africa and Italy.

My grandparents exchanged nearly 2,000 letters during those tumultuous years. My grandfather—frustrated with the small size of the “Victory Mail” stationery—sometimes wrote four or five letters in one day. My grandmother’s nightly letter writing was often interrupted by one of the twins. “Your eldest son is supposed to be going to sleep, but he is standing up in bed yelling for all he is worth. I guess he hears the typewriter going and wants to write to his Daddy about how the way his Mother treats him,” she wrote in 1944. In another letter, she said, “The kids are pulling a bunch of magazines down but I think I’ll leave them alone until they start tearing them. You have no idea how constantly we are trying to keep them out of things.” From a ship en route to Algeria, my grandfather wrote, “Teach the babies to be good, and to love their absent father.”

Pippin himself was a veteran of World War I. He volunteered in 1917 and served in the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-Black, New York–based unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He was shot during his service in France and suffered a debilitating injury to his right arm. Following rehabilitation, he was discharged in 1919, though his injury continued to affect his mobility. Pippin would later revisit his experiences in the war through both writing and works of art. Some of his notebooks and letters are available online through the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Among his written accounts of the appalling conditions and ever-present peril during his deployment, he recalled the uplift brought by receiving letters from home.

On Veterans Day, I am grateful for those who have served our country, including my own father and grandfathers, Gallery coworkers and friends, artist veterans such as Horace Pippin, and many of our museum visitors. I am equally grateful for veterans’ families, whose incredible sacrifices for their loved ones often go uncelebrated.