I foresee the time when the painter will paint that scene, no longer going to Rome for a subject; the poet will sing it; the historian record it; and, with the Landing of the Pilgrims and the Declaration of Independence, it will be the ornament of some future national gallery, when at least the present form of slavery shall be no more here. We shall then be at liberty to weep for Captain Brown. Then, and not till then, we will take our revenge.
On Sunday October 30, 1859, Henry David Thoreau addressed the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts, to give his account of the character and actions of John Brown, as the abolitionist stood trial for murder, inciting an insurrection, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Two weeks earlier, Brown had led an unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that Brown thought would be the spark to ignite rebellion by enslaved people across the South, and ultimately abolition throughout the nation. Brown’s powerful adversaries––many of whom, as members of the Confederacy during the Civil War, would go on to uphold the enslavement of Black people––portrayed him as a madman and a traitor. Despite the outcry from abolitionist allies including Thoreau, he was sentenced to hang on November 2.
Decades after Brown’s death in 1942, painter Horace Pippin portrayed the moments leading up to the abolitionist’s execution in John Brown Going to His Hanging. This season of the Artist’s Institute is dedicated to this painting, examining the lasting influence of both John Brown and Horace Pippin in American culture. The Institute began studying the painting with Hunter College graduate students in January 2020, a semester whose final months found us in the streets protesting police brutality and racism––a sobering reminder that the liberation envisioned by Brown and his fellow abolitionists has not yet been realized in the United States.
No Tears: In Conversation with Horace Pippin is co-presented with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which purchased Pippin’s painting from its annual exhibition in 1943. The season includes collaborations with ARTS.BLACK editors Jessica Lynne and Taylor Renee Aldridge, Dean Moss, and Dr. Brittany Webb, the Evelyn and Will Kaplan Curator of Twentieth-Century Art and the John Rhoden Collection at PAFA. It was organized by Jenny Jaskey, Director and Curator of the Artist’s Institute; Madeleine Seidel, Lazarus Curatorial Fellow; and developed out of a Curatorial Certificate seminar in the Department of Art & Art History at Hunter College.
Thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, Kinkade Family Foundation, Carol and Arthur Goldberg Foundation-to-Life, Inc., Joan S. Davidson, Joan Lazarus, Robert Lehmann Foundation, and Peter and Fran Lubin, whose support made this season possible.
Introduction to Exhibition Wall Labels
In the 75 years since Horace Pippin’s death, critics have frequently cited one of the painter’s more well-known quotes about his work — “I think my pictures out with my brain and then I respond with my heart.” — to argue that Pippin’s position as a self-taught artist betrays any possession of a critical, painterly methodology. This belief, however, could not be further from the truth.
There are but a handful of American artists who have troubled the very terms of what it means to visually render the histories, political ideologies, or cultural artifacts of this country. Pippin, with his distinct technical style, is one such artist.
When we received an invitation from the Artist’s Institute to organize a suite of responses to Pippin on the occasion of its season dedicated to Horace Pippin’s John Brown Goes to His Hanging, we eagerly said yes. We extended the invitation to a collective of friends, colleagues, and comrades whose work has long inspired us, asking them to interpret and (re)-frame it in order to create a chorus of poetry and prose that closely examines Pippin’s gestures and impulses as a painter. In turn, this became a moment to reconsider the function and form of the wall label itself. These voices, also, of course, consider the legacy of perhaps the most well-known American abolitionist, John Brown.
It is our hope that, as a viewer, you will feel invited to compose your own response to Pippin’s enduring poignancy as an artist, just as you might find time to ruminate on Brown’s anti-racist mission at a moment in which such language has become easily commodifiable.
In John Brown Goes to his Hanging, Pippin renders his own chorus visible—a gathering of white individuals intent on seeking vengeance. In the bottom right corner of the canvas, we see a Black elder with her back to this gathering, a scowl on her face. Brown being carted off to his death. Two horses tasked with pulling the cart to the gallows. There are many ways to enter into a painting.
Consider then, the prompt offered by contributor James McAnally: Who are we in this crowd?
— Taylor Renee Aldridge and Jessica Lynne, Editors, ARTS.BLACK