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 iden