The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks
by Frank Holt
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and 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. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.
Probably no other folk or mainstream American artist has been as strongly influenced by a single Biblical passage over as long a period as Edward Hicks (1780-1849). His series of Peaceable Kingdom paintings is the hallmark of the exhibition, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, now on view at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Va. Like certain other self-taught artists, he adopted a single theme in his paintings and refined and repeated it throughout his lifetime.
Hicks first used the theme of the passage from Isaiah as he made the successful transition from painting coaches and trade signs to easel painting. Accustomed to painting signs which represented a shop's business, he incorporated his early training into his paintings, using the same clear colors and shapes which were easy to recognize and read. Although he never considered himself a "fine art" painter, he might have been one had he not placed limitations on himself. Moreover, he was always aware of the conservative nature of the Bucks County, Pa., area where he lived. In fact, he was criticized by the leaders of his adopted Quaker religion for being a painter of non-utilitarian objects. This disapproval greatly influenced and defined the phases of Hicks' works.
Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom paintings were based on a series of engravings by the English artist Richard Westall, who produced the prints in England during 1800-15. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller exhibition makes these references vivid by placing the paintings next to their sources and illustrating the reversal of one engraving by means of a movable plastic panel superimposed on a photograph of the painting.
Hicks' earliest painting dealing with Isaiah's verses is The Peaceable Kingdom (Cleveland Museum of Art), circa 1816-18. This and other early paintings depict a naturalistic landscape in which specific types of grasses, trees and flowers can be identified. Some of the imagery includes Virginia's Natural Bridge, the English countryside and a river valley.
The influence of English landscape painting is seen in Hicks' use of color and light. A little child leads the animals -- which appear to be cuddly, friendly and toy-like (on the right side of the composition) -- while William Penn and other Quakers meet with the Leni-Lenape Indians (on the left side of the composition). This formula was repeated often in the Peaceable Kingdom series.
Perhaps one of the strongest features in all the early Kingdom paintings is the border Hicks designed to go around the paintings. In it, he paraphrases the Isaiah prophecy. (Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, 1822-25, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center) If there is a weakness in these paintings, it is the depiction of human and animal forms -- they appear to be somewhat stiff and doll-like. This can be attributed to the painter's lack of formal art training, but at the same time, it adds to the appeal of his subject matter.
The years from the late 1820s through the early 1830s are identified by the curator, Carolyn Weekley, as Hicks' middle period. The paintings produced during this time show changes in both the imagery and the composition of the Peaceable Kingdoms. According to Weekley, these changes were caused by the schism that occurred in the Quaker church between the Orthodox and the Hicksite factions. Hicks was both emotionally and intellectually disturbed by the growing dissension within the ranks of the Quaker church, of which he was a minister. This dissension is reflected in the paintings in part by a break between the child and animals on the right side of the compositions and the group of figures on the left side. The animals are tense and watchful.
The lion, representative of strength and leadership as a defender and protector, reminds us of the dangers of secular kingdoms and the misuse of temporal power. Hicks' lion is balanced by the leopard, more sensuous and languid, representing a social worldliness and self-serving interest that led to the organization of reform groups. Both the animal and the figurative groups are flatter and have lost their three-dimensional depth. This technique also sets up a certain tension and discord on the surface of the painting. (Peaceable Kingdom, 1832-34)
In Hicks' later period, the mid-1830s to the early 1840s, the animals take on a look of resignation and fatigue. Gone is their innocent, playful quality. These compositions are the mature work of the artist. Instead of being confined to the right side, the animals spread out over the surface of the paintings. Hicks reintroduces perspective and introduces new animals, giving the lion a mate and cubs. The leopard also has a mate, and animals are represented in conflict for the first time. Wall panels in the exhibition identify these various periods and the historical milieu of the Quaker church in Pennsylvania during these more turbulent years.
Throughout the paintings, skies are pink and blue, but the quality of light and reflection varies. The atmosphere shares some of the qualities seen in American Luminist works from the same period. Skies, as well as human figures and animal forms, reflect the changing mood of the artist in response to the growing church schism. (Peaceable Kingdom, 1846, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)
Beginning in the mid-1840s, Hicks produced a group of paintings dealing with the rural landscape of Bucks County, some of which were painted for close friends and family members. The works reflect a sense of growing calm and peacefulness that the artist felt in his own life. He had accepted the reality of the division in the church and had made his peace with life. (A May Morning View of the Farm and Stock of Davis Leedom..., 1849, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center)
The current exhibition of 133 paintings at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center opened February 7 and will continue through September 6. The works are beautifully installed, and each painting is given room to breathe. The effect of seeing 62 Peaceable Kingdoms hung together is stunning and warrants careful study. The exhibit is extremely well-documented through the use of detailed text panels, historical materials and artifacts, gallery notes, an excellent video produced by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a children's participatory area and the scholarly catalogue written by curator Weekley. A bonus for visitors to the exhibition is the extensive knowledge and enthusiasm provided by the docents. These volunteers give to the exhibition a feeling of warmth and intimacy which enhances the viewer's experience. The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks is a show not to be missed.
The exhibition will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (October 10, 1999-January 2, 2000), the Denver Art Museum (February 12-April 30, 2000) and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (September 24, 2000-January 7, 2001).
FRANK HOLT is the director of the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Fla.
As seen in:
[#46] Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1999$15.00 ppd