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Edward Hicks

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Edward Hicks
(Attleborough (now Langhorne), Pennsylvannia, 1780 - 1849, Newtown, Pennsylvania)

Edward Hicks (1780-1849) created at least sixty-two versions of "Peaceable Kingdom." First exhibited at the Bucks County (Pennsylvania) Bi-Centennial Celebration in 1882, Hicks’ "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings are a mainstay in American art collections across the country.

Hicks was a devout Quaker minister throughout his life, and although he owned and operated a successful coach and sign painting business, a great deal of his time was spent travelling to and testifying at Quaker meetings. Most of his "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings were given to friends, relatives, and others who supported his, and his cousin Eliad Hicks's, ministries. Thus these works were not a significant or important source of income for Hicks, and he was recognized only posthumously as an artist. In order to understand the "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings, one must consider Quaker theology, which underscored the essential meanings of the artist’s easel paintings.

Edward Hicks was born in Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1780 to Isaac and Catharine Hicks. Hicks's parents suffered great difficulties as a result of Gilbert Hicks's (Isaac’s father, Edward’s grandfather) actions during the Revolutionary War. Gilbert, the designated town official, was directed by the King’s peace commissioner, General William Howe, to read a proclamation from the courthouse steps in Newtown forbidding the residents taking up arms against the English. Many local citizens were outraged, and Gilbert, because he was unfortunate to read the announcement, was deemed a traitor to the American cause. Accounts state that local patriots immediately pursued Gilbert, presumably with the intention of arresting him.(1) Gilbert fled to Nova Scotia, and never returned to Newtown.

As a result of his father's disgrace, Isaac Hicks’s life in Newtown was not much easier. Although he served for years in government positions to which the royal governor had appointed him, Isaac was eventually asked to resign because he was suspected of being a Tory sympathizer like his father. In 1777, State officials were sent to his home to confiscate all keys, public papers, and records, collect and examine all books in his possession, and place all items in the Bucks County public office. Isaac and Catharine lived in Gilbert’s house and its surrounding land. The final devastating blow came when the patriots confiscated their property and home as well.

Edward’s birth was recorded on April 4, 1780 in Attleborough, Middletown Township, Bucks County. At this time, the Hicks family included Edward, his parents, his brother Gilbert Edward, and his sister, Eliza Violetta. Unfortunately, Edward’s mother, Catharine, died a short year and a half after his birth as a result of an unknown illness. The story goes that Isaac, having no place to live and no place to work, gave Edward to Jane, the family slave, to raise as her own. Edward remained in her care until he was three years old. Soon after Catharine’s death, Isaac decided to board his children, which not only provided them with a place to live, but with schooling as well. In 1783, Isaac Hicks recorded in his account book that he had paid family friend David Twining four pounds for boarding his youngest son, Edward, then three years old.

David and Elizabeth Twining raised Edward along with their four daughters.(2) David was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and had a collection of books to which Edward had access. The books were largely approved for Quaker readers and were Edward’s first exposure to literature. Apprenticed to coach makers William and Henry Tomlinson, Edward learned the trade of coach and sign painting. Unfortunately, the firm burned after six months. However, Edward was not out of work for very long, as Colonel Augustine Willett allowed the Tomlinsons to operate his tavern until their shop could be reopened. Edward went to work at the tavern where he was exposed to “bad sorts.” The tavern was a favorite haunt of the local militia and the young Edward quickly joined.(3) Once the coach making shop reopened in 1795, Edward went back to work as an ornamental painter. He stayed with the firm for four months and then left to open his own business.

While operating his business, Hicks boarded with Dr. Joseph Fenton, one of his first customers. Fenton was a Presbyterian and it was here that Edward began to consider his religious life seriously. However, the young artist was not completely committed to leading a pious life. He spent a large amount of time drinking and carousing with “bad sorts” and often traveled to Philadelphia for this purpose as well as for business. Dr. Fenton encouraged Edward to become a Presbyterian, but Edward instead began to attend the Quaker meeting of the Middletown Friends. Two Quakers from the meeting, John Comly and James Walton, had a strong impact on the young artist, offering Edward more in terms of his own spirituality. The artist found his spiritual home with the Middletown Meeting and asked a fellow Quaker Joshua C. Canby, who was a coach maker in Milford, to join him in business. Edward eventually joined the Middletown Meeting and it was here that he met his wife, Sarah Worstall.

Edward and Sarah married in 1803, but were immediately plagued with financial problems. Edward had borrowed money to buy and build a house when he couldn’t afford it. By this time he was also testifying at Quaker meetings, and as a result of his financial problems, he often spoke on never borrowing money and never going into debt. By late 1810, Edward was established in Newtown, but he still spent a great deal of time traveling and preaching at Quaker meetings. His commitment to the Quaker meeting in Newtown, the Society of Friends, became more important than his financial situation and family.

During the first years in Newtown, Hicks became increasingly aware of growing dissent and the possibility that factions might form in the American Quaker community. Hicks was eventually among the vanguard of Quakers who became involved in what has been called the Hicksite Separation, named after the artist’s cousin, Elias, a Quaker minister from New York. About 1811, English Quakers began to discuss a closer association between Friends in Britain and in America, with the goal to establish the unification of Quakers. Some American Quakers traveling abroad rejected this idea because they feared it would threaten the liberty and harmony American Quakers enjoyed. In the years following, a number of English Quakers traveled to America in order to promote unification. Edward, with Elias and John Comly, traveled to various meetings to protest and discourage this unification.

By 1816, Edward found himself in a personal dilemma. Now a devout Quaker, the artist struggled because his religious life seemed to be at odds with his profession as a painter. He was criticized for his ornamental painting, which included making tavern signs and pictorial art for public display, mainly because embellishment was seen as unsuitable. He was unsure if these types of paintings were appropriate for the trade of a Quaker minister who needed to earn a living. No formal doctrines on art and Quakers existed, only the "Rules of Discipline," which guided behaviors. For a short time, Edward even gave up painting and tried his hand at farming, however he soon realized that art was where his real talents lie.

By the 1820s, Edward’s constant traveling and shop working had taken its toll. He developed a chronic cough, which worried his family. While he was away preaching, he relied on his wife Sarah, daughters Mary and Susan, and son Isaac to carry on routine management of the household and shop. The majority of Edward’s works that are known are from the shop are utilitarian— signboards, carriage and wagon painting, house painting, fire buckets, furniture and the like. Business went on as usual in sign painting, but a commission for two pictures for Dr. Fenton’s family marked a change in the artist’s interests. These paintings, "Falls of Niagara" (1825-26, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and "The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" (1822-25, Yale University Art Gallery), were among the first of his easel paintings.

According to art historian Carolyn Weekley, Edward’s sermon given in 1837 at the Goose Creek Meeting House in London County, Virginia is the most important source for interpreting the "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings. Edward believed strongly in power, poetry, and the eloquence of the Holy Scriptures to which he often referred. He viewed the Scriptures as inspired by God, but a product of man. However, this was not to be confused with direct communication with God through the “Inward Light.” He believed that “the animal body of man…was the highest order…”—a belief important for understanding the origins and beliefs rooted in Quaker thought as well as in much of Christian thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

Scholars believe that the first "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings date approximately 1816-18 and differ dramatically from his later well-known versions. For example, "Peaceable Kingdom "(1816-18, Cleveland Museum of Art) depicts a child surrounded by animals—the lion, cow, sheep, goat, leopard, and wolf—all of which are standard depictions throughout his "Kingdom" paintings. What is different here however, is the setting. The child and animals are in a serene landscape with lake and forest. Later "Peaceable Kingdom" scenes are divided into two sections—one part with the child and animals, and the other part with Penn’s treaty or a group of Quakers.

Each animal in the "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings represented traits of human nature that Edward associated with both Orthodox (English) and Hicksite (American) behavior. There are several sources critical to understanding the paintings—most importantly, Isaiah 11: 6-8:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
and their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.

Clearly, Edward chose his animals from this passage that indicates how aggressive animals must adapt in order to achieve peace. This prophecy corresponded to the Quaker belief that a state of harmony resulted from God’s communication to mankind through the “Inward Light.” The denial of self—or denial of selfish animal instincts—was the only way to establish a harmonious existence.(5)

Edward’s early to middle "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings (approximately 1820-1834) all contain the central figures of the child and animals. Over the course of time, Edward began to make subtle changes. For example, the expression of the animals and their eyes—initially they are somewhat subdued, peaceful, and serene with closed or slightly opened eyes. The animals’ eyes gradually open wider, and they have an expression of awareness as opposed to indifference. The child in all the paintings holds the grape vine, which represents the blood of Christ. A large tree is predominant in all the paintings, located just behind the child. Over time, the tree becomes larger and more important, with a noticeable split in the middle. Weekley believes that this is symbolic of the schism within the Quaker community. And, many of the paintings had a border with text wrapped around it, often quoting from Isaiah. By the mid 1820s, Edward began including a scene depicting Penn’s Treaty on the left side of the paintings. The inclusion of Penn was natural, as Edward had a great deal of respect and admiration for one of the cornerstones of primitive Quaker discipline.

In the late 1820s and into the 1830s, Edward changed the vignette of Penn’s Treaty to a large group of Quakers holding banners. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts’ "Peaceable Kingdom" (c. 1831) is from this period. Weekley identified several of the men in the group—William Penn, primitive Quaker preacher George Fox, Friends Richard Barclay, and most importantly, Elias Hicks, who holds a white handkerchief. Elias always appears in profile, which was probably derived from an original silhouette by John Hopper. The later Peaceable Kingdom paintings were probably a tribute to Elias, who had died in 1830. However, they are more celebratory than mournful commemorations as Edward probably wanted to honor Elias’s ministry and exemplary life.

While the child and animals remained in Edward’s later "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings, the iconography continued to evolve.(6) Edward removed the vignette of Quakers and introduced a figure representing liberty feeding a bald eagle from her hand, and a dove. He sometimes also included two more children and a cow and another lion eating from the same hay in the background. Gradually, the expression of the animals began to change as well, particularly in the predominant lion. His eyes (along with the other animals) are not open extremely wide as before, and his head begins to relax and droop. These changes, according to Weekley corresponded with the status of the divisivness in the Quaker community. As the situation eased and time passed, the "Peaceable Kingdom" compositions, in effect, also became more peaceful and harmonious.

During the last twenty-five years of his life, Edward painted twenty-five "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings, farmscapes, pastoral scenes, and historical works.(7) It was the most productive period for the artist in terms of his easel works. As he aged, he became less active in his ministry, and was more concerned with achieving inner personal harmony and spiritual peace, and therefore enjoyed greater artistic freedom. Edward Hicks died peacefully on August 23, 1849. It is reported that more than three thousand people attended his funeral.

1) Gilbert’s loyalties during the war are still debated by scholars today. Documents indicate that Gilbert sympathized with the colonists’ position to an extent, but believed resolution should be sought through mediation, not war. See Carolyn Weekley, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1999), p. 14.
2) Isaac paid boarding and education costs in order to help the Twinings raise his son.
3) Unsatisfied by simple marches and lack of military action, the artist resigned in 1801.
4) This analysis was adapted from Carolyn Weekley’s research on the Peaceable Kingdom paintings. For a more in depth discussion, see her book, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, New York, Harry Abrams, Inc., 1999.
5) Edward’s knowledge of animal symbolism also contributed to the meaning behind the paintings. The artist was aware of medieval humoralism as it had been adapted and used in many cultures. Specifically, the wolf symbolized melancholy; the leopard represented sanguinity; the bear, cold and unfeeling, represented the phlegmatic; and lion was choleric, dominated by the element of fire. The four humors were also associated with metaphoric use of animal symbolism in Quaker sermons and writings common to the seventeenth century.
6) No definitive dates can be given for the early, middle, and late paintings as the change in iconography overlaps. Meaning, that as the artist was including the group of Quakers with banners, he was still painting versions with Penn’s Treaty.
7) In 1833, Edward was awarded a commission to paint signs commemorating George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River. The signs were placed at either end of the Delaware River bridge. Edward continued to paint versions of the scene until the end of his life, along with full paintings depicting Penn’s Treaty.

Letha Clair Robertson
December 18, 2003

Image credit: Thomas Hicks (American, 1823–1890), Edward Hicks Painting the Peaceable Kingdom, 1839, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., NPG.88.53, Photograph courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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