A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 31 pages. $17.99.
ISBN: 978-0-375-86712-5. Also available as an e-book.
Genre: Historical, non-fiction, picture book biography
Theme: Perseverance, Following your dreams
Awards: The Robert F. Sibert Honor Book
The Schneider Family Book Award
Orbus Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
Grade Level: 1-5
“A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin”, is a delightfully engaging picture book which, as its title indicates, follows the life of Horace Pippin, an African-American artist born in West Chester, Pa, twenty years after the end of the Civil War. From an early age, Horace shows artistic talent and despite his struggles in life (including a debilitating injury to his drawing arm), his passion for art could not be stilled and he finds success later in life.
The book is a beautifully illustrated and well-written picture book and makes biographies accessible to children. The language of the text is simple and inviting, appropriate for children without being childish. The author makes effective use of punctuation to control the rhythm of the story. The reader is drawn in and gains a feeling for Horace’s character and his love for his art. There is a refrain throughout the book, “Make me a picture, Horace,” which serves to illustrate Horace’s talent and how much art was present and a part of who he was throughout his life. There are no page numbers in the book and the reader is compelled to follow along the story in a continuous flow.
The story begins with the birth of Horace on February 22, 1888. It starts off with a great universal message: “The biggest part of you is inside, where no one can see,” referring to Horace being comforted by his grandmother’s words for his too long legs and big hands. This sets the stage and tone for what makes Horace special. Despite taking place over a century ago, the story and pictures are relatable, as we see little Horace drawing on the floor surrounded by a collection of drawings he had made, or his teacher getting mad at him for making drawings next to the words on his spelling list.
The book focuses solely on Horace and the events in his life, with pictures to depict different stages in his life – Horace as a boy, Horace as a young man, Horace as a soldier, Horace as he is older. Other than as brief mentions in the story, we do not get to know much about the other people in Horace’s life – his grandmother, an absent father, his sisters, and his wife. However, each vignette tells us a little more about what shaped Horace on his path to becoming the artist he came to be.
The rich and colorful illustrations, which are similar to Horace’s own style of painting, are simple and complement the style and language of the text. We see some elements of a time past, e.g. milkmen delivering milk on horse-drawn carriages, but the people and activities are recognizable. The illustrator makes use of watercolor, gouache and multimedia, giving texture and depth to the pictures as they help the story to come alive. Additionally, throughout the book you find quotes from Horace set off and decorated in boxes. They reflect his inner thoughts and impressions in a simple and heartfelt manner.
The entire book is well thought-out, from the title and jacket page to the last page of the book. The book cover shows a little boy with a collection of colored pencils in the grasp of his left hand, as he stands underlining the title with a red colored pencil. The title is written in white in a non-traditional combination of upper and lower case letters with different colors and patterns in the background, creating a feast for the eyes of the reader with all its different details.
Some events in the book are not explained due to young audience: the brief mentions of Grandmother and her slave days; why Horace’s father abandoned the family; and possible racism (no one bought his paintings until attention was drawn to them by famous artist, N.C. Wyeth). The book, instead, chooses to focus on the life and struggles of Horace Pippin, the artist. This may be more appropriate with the younger ages but at the same time, the implicit issues could be taken up for further exploration in class discussions with the older children.
We get a glimpse of the subject matter of Horace’s paintings when he tries to sell them at a time before his talent was recognized. The pieces shown primarily portray African-Americans in daily life activities: women working in the kitchen, children playing games in the yard, men singing on the corner. However, there are also two paintings that are more reflective of the sociopolitical environment of this time: abolitionist John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. In actuality, many of Horace Pippin’s paintings portray the injustices of slavery and segregation. The book, however, is not intended to be a social commentary. The inequality and great divide between blacks and whites is not mentioned anywhere in the book. A picture of two hands clasped in a handshake– one brown, one white – when N.C. Wyeth proposes a one-man exhibition for Horace may perhaps be a subtle nod to the color difference that is a part of the social landscape of the time. Even the historical note in the last pages of the book which provide further insight into Horace Pippin and his life – though too sophisticated for the young reader, but useable with older readers – makes no mention of the harsher struggles Horace experienced in life, e.g. growing up in segregation, violence, racism.
Although the book does not delve into the significance of the historical period in which the story takes place, it does a wonderful job in introducing its young readers to an artist who beat enormous odds in following his passion. By focusing the story on Horace, we get to connect with him in a personal way on his journey and we are left feeling genuinely glad for the man who overcame his obstacles.