Interior represents a mother and her two children on a winter evening. The room is sparsely furnished. Frozen snow has accumulated at the window in the center background, and the alarm clock to the right indicates that it is six o’clock. The mother sits in front of a stove and smokes a pipe as steam rises from a kettle in front of her. Her profile pose and self-absorbed attitude recall James McNeill Whistler’s iconic Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (best known as “Whistler’s Mother,” 1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). A girl sits on a quilt in the center foreground, and cradles a doll. To the left, a boy stands at a table, presumably reading a book by the light of the candle.
This painting belongs to series of semi-autobiographical domestic interiors that Pippin painted from 1941 until his death in 1946, the best known among them being Domino Players [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Horace Pippin, Domino Players, 1943, oil on canvas on board, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Recalling aspects of Pippin’s childhood, most of these scenes represent members of African American families pursuing a variety of household activities in a single multipurpose room. The paintings all have the same quiet, peaceful ambience and feature many of the same common household items, such as rag rugs, quilts, a stove, and an alarm clock. What distinguishes Interior and gives added significance to the work’s title is the way the three figures, instead of interacting, have turned their backs to each other and seem lost in their own inner worlds. The mother, self-contained and detached from her children, contrasts with the young girl tenderly embracing her doll. The sparse interior further intensifies the austerity and loneliness of the scene, while the vibrant patterns of the three rag rugs, as well as the girl’s quilt and the checkerboard tablecloth, enliven the composition. The textures of the wooden floorboards and dilapidated plaster wall are vividly rendered; the treatment of the former is reminiscent of Pippin’s earlier pyrographic technique, in which he burned his forms with a metal stylus directly into wooden panels.
The most striking and paradoxical aspect of Interior is the incongruence between the impenetrable black night outside and its inexplicably bright, uniformly lit room. Many of Pippin’s other nocturnal scenes, such as Abe Lincoln, The Great Emancipator (1942, Museum of Modern Art) or Saying Prayers [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Horace Pippin, Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine River Museum of Art, Museum Purchase, The Betsy James Wyeth Fund, 1980, amply demonstrate his ability to render the shadow play of interiors at night in more realistic ways. Nothing can logically explain the presence of the red flames of the candle and the oil lamp in the shining room or the lack of true shadows in the composition of Interior. Pippin instead deliberately calls into question the distinction between day and night, inside and outside, depth and flatness, reality and abstraction. The diverse and, at times, contradictory qualities of works like Interior led the leading writer and intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance Alain Locke to comment in 1947, shortly after the artist's death, that Pippin was "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so uniquely as almost to defy classification."
September 29, 2016