Based in his hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, Pippin taught himself to paint, despite having suffered the partial paralysis of his right arm during World War I. The artist first rose to public acclaim when he was included in MoMA’s 1938 exhibition Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America.
This work was painted in 1942, at the height of Pippin’s fame. It depicts an apocryphal Civil War tale in which President Lincoln pardoned a Union Army officer who had been condemned to death for falling asleep during the evening watch. Using a vivid palette and thickly brushed forms, Pippin created a dramatic nocturnal scene set inside a white tent, with stark shadows cast against its angled sides. Lincoln gently touches the back of the kneeling, white-shirted sentry, while General Ulysses S. Grant and two infantrymen bear witness. The title of the work alludes to the theme of emancipation—and indeed, the postures of Lincoln and the sentry recall popular images of the president gesturing over a kneeling freed slave. Pippin, however, reimagined this formula to feature a white protagonist who owes Lincoln his gratitude for a merciful pardon.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
This painting’s title refers to Abraham Lincoln as the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, freeing America’s enslaved, but Pippin illustrated a different moment, a Civil War incident in which Lincoln pardoned a sentry condemned to death for sleeping on duty. In a Union Army tent, the sentry kneels before Lincoln while a general and two infantrymen bear witness. Pippin, an African American, was responding to a genre of images in which black figures knelt before Lincoln in either supplication or gratitude for their freedom. In putting a white soldier in their place, Pippin subverted the familiar narrative to include white atonement.
Gallery label from 2019