According to a letter to Edith Halpert on January 10, 1946, Duncan Phillips exchanged an elaborate still-life by Pippin, Victorian Interior, for this painting, thereby showing a preference for the somber monotones and “restrained colors, black, white, gray, with touches of red” found in this picture. Though vastly different in mood from Domino Players, The Barracks shares with that painting a strong abstract design and an evocative sense of place—two qualities dear to Phillips. Both pictures are a synthesis of memory distilled into images of great power.
In The Barracks, Pippin drew on memories of World War I. In March 1917, Pippin joined the New York State 15th National Guard, an African American unit that became the 369th Infantry Regiment when it was incorporated into the U.S. Army. Pippin’s entire war experience abroad centered in France. He was wounded and returned to New York in January 1919, yet it was not until 1945 that this crowded, claustrophobic memory of the animal-like existence of war surfaced. Where another artist might have approached the loss of identity that accompanies military service with a bird’s-eye view of numerous soldiers in formation, Pippin was selective. By including a few individual soldiers arranged on a grid, he evoked the painful quashing of identity that war brought on. The painting also serves, however, as a poignant reminder of racial segregation even in the face of battle.
The Barracks is one of Pippin’s most carefully composed paintings. By including an ashen floor in the foreground, Pippin both softened and lightened this painting. This area appears to be lit by an unseen source much stronger than the candlelight by which the men work or read, perhaps a result of Pippin’s method of working at night under a bright light. Both the eerie light and the wide perspective that interrupts the sense of spatial continuity, detach the scene from the viewer’s space, evoking a universal image of the forlorn monotony of soldier’s lives in wartime.