Devoted to a `Peaceable Kingdom'

SUN JOURNAL

Painter: Little-known artist Edward Hicks painted more than 60 versions of a scene that has enduring appeal.

August 29, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- Even if you don't know Edward Hicks' name, you probably know his most famous work, "Peaceable Kingdom." It is one of the treasured and beloved images of American folk art and it shows up everywhere -- on T-shirts, kaleidoscopes, cookie tins.

"It's not the kind of thing that you can easily walk away from," says Carolyn J. Weekley, director of museums for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. "It is the color and the precision in capturing certain expressions on the animals that really just draws people to these paintings."

Hicks painted more than 60 versions, each built on Isaiah's biblical prophecy of harmony. Thirty of these paintings form the heart of "The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks," on display at the folk-art center. They are part of the first major exhibit of Hicks' work.

Hicks, who died in 1849, would be surprised to see his work revered. He earned his living as an ornamental painter, not as an artist. What fame he had came through his work as a Quaker minister.

In his memoirs, he wrote that his purpose was to "bear a simple, childlike testimony to this mercy and goodness, . . . which will subject me to be pitied by the wise and prudent of this world as a fool, or ridiculed as an enthusiast; my doctrine considered madness and my end without honor."

How Hicks came to embrace the "Peaceable Kingdom" image and the large part it played in his life is a main theme of the exhibit.

The story begins in the Pennsylvania countryside of Bucks County where his grandfather, Gilbert Hicks, received 600 acres as a wedding present. That land was confiscated during the American Revolution because Gilbert Hicks was a Tory sympathizer. By the time Edward Hicks was born in 1780, the family had no great claim in the village of Langhorne, or in Bucks County.

Hicks was not quite 2 years old when his mother died. His father sent him to live with David and Elizabeth Twining, a Quaker family in nearby Newtown. There, Hicks grew up and collected memories that informed his later work.

At age 13, he returned to Langhorne as an apprentice to coach makers William and Henry Tomlinson. He learned the basics of coach making and decorating carriages and began to specialize in decorative painting.

He painted advertisements on wooden boards, and he decorated fire buckets, serving trays and other items for the home. By 1811, he had become a Quaker minister, and was in trouble with the arbiters of his religion. Quaker philosophy encouraged simplicity and plainness. Hicks' decorative work clashed with those ideals.

To satisfy the critics, Hicks gave up painting in 1815 and tried to be a farmer. That effort failed. Within a year, with his debts rising, he returned to painting. It was during this time that he painted his first "Peaceable Kingdom." The image was based on a Richard Westall engraving popular in early 19th-century Bibles.

Like Hicks' work, Westall's engraving, "The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch," was inspired by the biblical prophecy of Isaiah (11: 6-9) that imagines a world where the ferocious and the meek animals are together in peace: "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 the lion shall eat straw like the ox."

Hicks expanded on the idea, reshaped it to fit his design and reflect his times.

"It's clear from the different clues that we have that the Kingdoms really drove him," says Laura Pass Barry, assistant curator. "These paintings are really an indication of his feelings about what was going on. He was a very religious man and that's what's driving these pictures. They're not just cute animals."

Because the paintings have so many elements, Barry suggests visitors pick one and follow its evolution from painting to painting. The expressions of the animals, the position of the child and the color of the sky can provide clues.

The paintings began as an evocation of the Quaker belief in peaceful coexistence. They later became code for his feelings about the schism among 19th-century Quakers, the curators believe. In one series there are several Quakers, including his older cousin, Elias Hicks, and a banner that reads: "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy. Peace on Earth and goodwill to men."

In time, the paintings reflected Hicks' realization that the two sides would not reconcile, curators believe. One of the exhibit's narrative panels says, "From about 1835 onward, the large lion's face assumed a serene or complacent expression. By the end of the decade, the lion showed growing fatigue and disinterest. Eventually, its brow became furrowed and its eyes deeply set."

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