Painting of the Day

14 Jan

Horace Pippin (1888-1946). Domino Players, 1943. Oil on composition board. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Notes from the book The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making:

The intimate interior setting of Domino Players is characteristic of Pippin. He explored this theme in a series of paintings that shows this kitchen, and a matriarchal figure usually dominates the scene. He drew on memories of his own childhood, of family members and friends at their everyday activities–caring for children, praying, quilting, smoking, playing games–and created a portrait of African-American family life in the era before the Second World War.

Pippin placed two members of his family in the center of activity. The one at the right may represent his mother, Christine, wearing a polka-dotted blouse, while a woman who may be Pippin’s grandmother smokes her pipe and observes the game of dominoes. The dominoes spill toward the family matriarch, a former slave who claimed to have witnessed the hanging of John Brown in 1859. The dominoes build a wall–woman to woman, generation to generation. The boy, perhaps Pippin himself or his younger brother, John, appears lost in contemplation. He is the only male member of this group, placed protectively between two strong women. The cold whites, greys, and blacks of the barren room are complemented by the colors of the quilt and the vibrant reds placed strategically throughout the painting. Visual tension is achieved by the slight tilt of the solid horizontals of the floor and table, even as the strong verticals of the doorway, window frames, and walls reestablish the stability of the picture’s composition and provide a firm vertical support for the figures.

The serenity of the scene and the Sunday evening demeanor are disturbed by the exaggerated size of the sharp open scissors on the blood-red scrap of cloth, the ferocious teethlike flames of the coal fire and even the tongues red flame in the oil lamps. All are presented as disproportionate signs danger as only a child would perceive them.

My comments:

The subject matter of the scene is relaxed and casual on the surface, but, almost like Hopper come to think of it, Pippin changes the picture to give it narrative and emotional depth, a depth which makes viewers aware of the tensions implicit in the scene due to the racial tensions still present in America.

Besides analyzing the symbolism of the painting as the analysis above does quite well, I also enjoy the visual patterns that Pippin created in this painting. The inverse of black and white that takes place between the dominoes and the polka-dot blouse the woman figure on the right side of the table is visually delightful. In fact, the interplay between black and white is a rhythm that carries throughout the composition and leads the eye skillfully to every part of it.

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