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    Peaceable Kingdom
by N. F. Karlins
 
     
 
Thomas Hicks
Edward Hicks
1839-1841
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1816-1818
 
Jacob Christ Signboard
1810-1840
 
Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch
1822-1825
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1826
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1829-1830
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1829-1832
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1835-1844
 
Peaceable Kingdom
1849
 
The last months of the millennium are the perfect time to contemplate the vision of peace on earth in the Peaceable Kingdom paintings of Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Hicks, a Pennsylvania sign painter and Quaker preacher, painted over 100 different versions of the Peaceable Kingdom.

Only 62 still exist, and each is an icon of American art. Remarkably, 25 Peaceable Kingdoms have been gathered together for the exhibition "The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 10, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000. Carolyn J. Weekley, director of museums for Colonial Williamsburg (including the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center), organized this quintessential Hicks show, which charts the development of the paintings and the life of their talented and temperamental creator.

Hicks did not start out as a Quaker. He wasn't even particularly religious. While some of his family were Quakers, his parents were Anglicans, and lost much of their wealth and status during the Revolutionary War. When his mother died only 18 months after his birth, his father boarded Edward and his two siblings with neighbors. Hicks was never close to his father, but found a loving home at age three with the Quakers Elizabeth and David Twining, who raised Hicks on their farm along with their own children.

As an apprentice to coach makers, Hicks drank and partied. Subject to emotional swings his entire life, and not particularly robust, he had managed to settle into the job of sign-painter, one of the less strenuous parts of coach making. He also painted household goods, tavern and other shop signs, and the occasional oil on canvas, examples of which are included in the show. Around 1800 he befriended a young Quaker and began attending Quaker meetings. He became a minister in 1811.

Hicks's profession of decorative painting was at odds with Quaker plain living, but he failed as a farmer and it was his only means of supporting his wife and children. His own conflicted feelings about painting may have been one of the reasons he chose to paint Peaceable Kingdoms, his interpretation of this Biblical passage from Isaiah 11, verses 6-8:

The Wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion with the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den.

Many Quakers believed this passage described the Quietism of their faith, their belief in relinquishing the willful self and listening to God. It would have appealed to Hicks' fellow Quakers, to whom he gave most of his Kingdoms as gifts.

Hicks borrowed his basic design elements from an engraving by Richard Westall printed in many 19th-century Bibles. Over time, he added a vignette from the painting Penn's Treaty with the Indians, substituted a group of Quakers talking with angels, or put the Natural Bridge in Virginia in the left side of the paintings. He also changed the arrangement of the child or children and animals and often put in a figure of Liberty feeding an eagle.

Above all, this exhibition proves just how different Hicks's many variations are. Weekley divides Hicks's Kingdoms into three groups. While not signed, the earliest Peaceable Kingdom attributed to Hicks dates from around 1816-18. His ability to paint shadows to suggest depth is limited and his drawing is odd, to say the least.

Most of the early group (to the late 1820s) has survived with their original lettered borders intact. The children are mild; the animals tame. Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch from 1822-5 shows great strides in his ability to compose a picture and greater confidence in rendering both figural and landscape passages.

A controversy between "Hicksite" Quakers (led by Edward's cousin Elias) and more worldly urban "Orthodox" Quakers, who favored the ways of English Quakers, resulted in a schism in 1827. The Orthodox Quakers accepted all scripture, a way of lessening the importance of Quietism and the personal interpretation of religious issues. The split was a constant source of upset to many rural American Quakers, especially Elias and Edward Hicks.

Around 1829 to 1832, Edward Hicks inserted a group of people, always in the middle left of his Kingdoms. The group was always the same, with his cousin Elias (who died in 1830) surrounded by other dead Quaker divines engaged in conversation with a banner overhead. From this point onward, Hicks experiments with the look, placement and number of animals. These transitional "banner" group images, and Penn's Treaty with the Indians have some mighty edgy animals in them.

Weekley calls the paintings of the middle period (roughly 1830 to 1840) Hicks' most sophisticated. In a sermon, Hicks outlined his view of four of the animals as representing the four humors of man, a concept from the Middle Ages, and a metaphor that his fellow-Quakers would have understood. The melancholic wolf, the phlegmatic bear, the sanguine leopard and the choleric lion play big roles. The lion, associated with England and the English Orthodox Quakers, gets special emphasis.

From 1835 on, Hicks' animals grew increasingly serene and passive. In the late 1830s he frequently inserted a third child, (there were only two in the earlier works), who appears to be Liberty, as she holds a dove in one hand and an eagle resting on the other hand.

By the 1840s, Hicks was no longer leaving home for missionary work and resigned to the split within the Quakers. The animals in the kingdom paintings seem to age as he did. The show ends with some of Hicks' late pastoral paintings of farms.

The well-researched catalogue (Abrams) by Weekley is a must-have for anyone interested in American art and life of the early 19th century.

After its premiere in Philadelphia, "The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks" travels to the Denver Art Museum, Feb. 12-Apr. 30, 2000, and to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M. H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, Sept. 24 through February 2001.


N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.

 
 
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