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Pippin's Story

Grade Level: 1–2

Students will learn about the life and painting style of African-American artist Horace Pippin. They will discover how to "read" the clues in his painting School Studies and write a story about the work. By solving counting and time problems, students will also create their own "secret number" painting.

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

Curriculum Connections

  • Math (numerals, counting, addition, subtraction, time)
  • Language Arts (storytelling, writing)


  • Smart Board or computer with ability to project images from slideshow
  • Art paper
  • Pencils
  • Poster paints, crayons or oil pastels

Warm-Up Questions

Is this painting happy or sad? What do you think? Have students look at the colors, the way the people and things in the painting are arranged, and their imagination to picture the mood of the people in the room.


Artists tell stories with color, line, and shape. They paint people, places, and things. They even paint numbers and counting, if you look closely enough. You'll find all these things in School Studies, a small painting by African-American artist Horace Pippin.


Photograph of Pippin and his wife Jennie
Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Horace Pippin was an African-American painter. He was born around 1888—just twenty-three years after the Civil War and the end of slavery. His grandparents were slaves, and his parents were domestic workers.

Pippin liked to draw and would illustrate his spelling words in school. But his family could not afford art materials. At age ten, he won a box of crayons in a magazine drawing contest and started coloring. He left school at age fourteen to help his family. He worked on a farm, as a porter at a hotel, and as an iron molder in a factory.

In 1917, Pippin went to France to fight in World War I. His right arm was badly injured in the war. He returned home, married, and settled in Pennsylvania. Because of his injury, he worked odd jobs and barely made a living.

At the age of forty Pippin found a way—even with his crippled right hand—to draw on wood using a hot poker. He made many burnt-wood art panels. Pippin decided to try painting with oil. He used his "good" left hand to guide his crippled right hand, which held the paintbrush, across the canvas. It took him three years to finish his first painting.

Pippin went on to paint his memories of soldiers and war, and scenes from his childhood. He said, "The pictures . . . come to me in my mind and if to me it is a worthwhile picture I paint it . . . I do over the picture several times in my mind and when I am ready to paint it I have all the details I need."

He also painted historical subjects, such as Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, and scenes from the Bible. At first, he made only about four paintings per year.

Slideshow: The Paintings of Horace Pippin

Pippin was called a folk artist because he had no formal art training. He used bright colors, flat shapes, and straight lines. He did not use shading or complicated perspective. His art is also called primitive, naive, or innocent.

In 1938, when he was around 50, the Museum of Modern Art included four of Pippin's paintings in a traveling museum show. He took art classes for the first time. Pippin became more and more well known. Galleries showed his paintings, and museums began to buy his work. He made 75 paintings during the last years of his life. Just as he became famous, Pippin died.

Pippin painted this interior scene—the inside of a house—from his childhood memories. He said, "Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead."

Guided Practice

Have students "read" the painting by looking carefully at all the details as clues to help tell the story:

  • What do you see? Who is in the room? What is each person doing? (A little boy, maybe seven years old, is reading, writing, or drawing by candlelight on the left side of the painting. A little girl, maybe three or four years old, is cradling a doll on a rug in the center of the room. The mother or grandmother is smoking a pipe and warming her feet at the stove.)
  • How would it feel to be in there? Is it warm or cold? (Snow on the windowpanes means that it is cold outside. The stove with the teakettle boiling suggests that it is warm inside.)
  • What time is it? Is it evening or morning? (It must be late because it is dark outside. The clock reads six o’clock.)
  • Is the room crowded or full of space? (The artist showed a lot of empty floor and wall space. This makes the room seem big and somewhat empty.)
  • Is the interior modern or old-fashioned? (There are cracks in the walls. You can see lath—thin strips of wood used behind plaster walls. The chair next to the boy is broken but hasn’t been thrown away. This is a scene from the past. The family has no electricity for light or heat. They use candles and a wood-burning stove. Also, they are wearing old-fashioned clothing. Remember, the artist painted from his childhood memories. He grew up in the late nineteenth century, more than 100 years ago.)

School Studies' "Secret Number": What number can you find again and again in School Studies?

  • Count the striped rugs.
  • Count the people.
  • Count the cracks in the walls.

The magic number is 3. Several things appear in sets of three. Can you find other things that appear in threes? (Hint: Can you find triangles in the painting? How many sides do they have?)

Now have students count by threes. Can they make it to 30?


Students will write a short story based on the people and things they see in Horace Pippin's painting School Studies. They will:

  • Give each person a name.
  • Include what they see in the painting, then use their imaginations to write what will happen next in the story.
  • Give their story a new title—not School Studies.
  • Sign their name on the back and contribute their story to a class book of School Studies stories.


Following the folk-art style of Horace Pippin, students will paint a room in their house. They will also practice counting by including a "secret number" in their work of art. Students will:

  1. Pick one room to draw.
  2. Choose a secret number between two and six and draw things in sets of the number they chose. (Remember, sets of three were counted in Pippin's School Studies.)
  3. Include people, furniture, toys, and decorations. For example, for number four, you could include four books, four pets, and four windows, along with any number of other objects and people.
  4. Keep your painting simple. Use only three or four colors. Fill the whole paper with the wall and floor of your room. Set the objects within the space.
  5. Trade paintings with a partner when they are finished. Start counting! Can you figure out your partner's secret number? Did your partner figure out yours?
  6. Put your painting in a class counting exhibit. Can you figure out the secret numbers in all the paintings?

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cr1.1.2 Brainstorm collaboratively multiple approaches to an art or design problem.

VA:Cr2.1.2 Experiment with various materials and tools to explore personal interests in a work of art or design.

VA:Pr4.1.2 Categorize artwork based on a theme or concept for an exhibit.

VA:Re7.1.2 Perceive and describe aesthetic characteristics of one’s natural world and constructed environments.

VA:Re8.1.2 Interpret art by identifying the mood suggested by a work of art and describing relevant subject matter and characteristics of form.

View the online tour “Black Art & Artists in Our Collection”

Explore the Film Information and Study Guide “Horace Pippin ‘There Will Be Peace’”

Register for evening and weekend teacher professional development workshops and apply to participate in the summer teacher institute