Country Doctor (Night Call)
Horace Pippin (American, 1888–1946)
71.44 x 81.6 cm (28 1/8 x 32 1/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Gallery (Gallery 327)
Horace Pippin was the grandson of slaves and son of a domestic worker and a laborer. He was not trained as an artist and did not complete his first oil painting until 1930, when he was forty-three years old. Injured in his right shoulder while serving in the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I, Pippin had to hold the brush in his right hand and move it across the canvas with his left. Using this painstaking technique, he painted pictures about his war experiences, the domestic lives of African Americans remembered from his childhood, outdoor scenes, still lifes, religious subjects, and portraits, including the great black singer Marian Anderson (Marian Anderson II, 1941, private collection). Pippin also painted narrative works about anti-slavery figures John Brown and Abraham Lincoln (for example, Trial of John Brown, 1942, de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Abe Lincoln, The Great Emancipator, 1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York). His works rarely contain overt social commentary, but they vividly capture Pippin’s life experiences and those of his heroes.
In Country Doctor, also known as Night Call, Pippin was able to achieve astonishing effects with a limited palette and an intuitive sense of design. The artist used thin washes of white pigment to convey the heavy snowfall through which a country doctor leads his horse and covered cart, presumably to tend to a patient. Pippin was apparently dissatisfied by the original grayish color of the snow and repainted it a brighter white—the original gray is visible around his signature in the lower right corner. The jagged slash of a small creek in the foreground anchors the composition, while the graceful patterns of the bare tree branches emphasize the cold, nocturnal nature of the journey. A clear path leads into the distance, and footsteps in the snow indicate the progress the doctor and carriage have made. Pippin’s painting quietly celebrates the dauntless and gallant country doctor, then an important part of the American rural scene. In the late 1930s Pippin met the famous Philadelphia collector Albert C. Barnes, who became a champion of his work, thus helping to popularize scenes of black American life by African American artists.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Lower right: H. Pippin.
1935, the artist. 1940, with Carlen Galleries, Philadelphia; sold to Dr. Morris V. Leof (b. 1871), Philadelphia. Clifford Odets (1906-1963), obtained from Leof family; 1963, estate of Clifford Odets; January 28-29, 1970, sale 2977, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, lot 303 to the MFA. (Accession Date: October 11, 1970)
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund