When the Quaker artist and minister Edward Hicks painted his first Peaceable Kingdom painting, just before 1820, it is unlikely that the artist could have foreseen the central role the resulting series of images - his iconographic arrangements of animals and human figures based on the Isaiah prophecy - would play in his own life, the lives of his family and friends, and his legacy as America's most celebrated folk artist.
Through his early apprenticeship training and practice as a coach sign and decorative painter, Edward Hicks had acquired significant notoriety as a craftsman of renowned skill and talent. Following criticism for his overly decorative and ornamental style by the Quaker Society of Friends, in 1816 Hicks turned for a time to farming, and his coach painting and other artisan work were set aside for favor of this pursuit. It proved for the painter an occupation that would meet with limited success, in fact his "farming speculation" showed a significant loss after wages and debts were paid. Consequently, the Hicks' shop ledger makes no mention of any painterly work again until 1817.
Hicks' return to ornamental painting was heralded by an advertisement he posted in the Star of Freedom for "Coach, Sign and Ornamental painting of all descriptions, in the neatest and handsomest manner." Hick's friend John Comly, a prominent member of the Society of Friends and a revered scholar, was horrified by the notice and was determined to make his protestations against "such pandering to vanity, when (according to the Quaker tenets of plainness and simplicity) he should be preaching against it" Comly couldn't deny his friend's " native genius and taste for imitation which, if the divine law had not prohibited, might have rivaled Peale or West," but he was determined that the talented minister would not lay down "the cause of truth."
Hicks would bring up the conflict repeatedly in his Memoirs. Continuing what Comly referred to as Hicks' fall into "...the mire of paint..," Hicks blamed his "harsh" and dire financial circumstances for having to pursue the work he had undertaken. He decorated clock faces and floor cloths, chairs, tables and the occasional sled and dog cart. This new, successful escape from his bleak financial circumstances took Hicks into an even greater realm of pictorial decoration. Fireboards were decorated with landscapes to order, and Hicks expanded his imagery by copying and collecting print source material. It was a time of renewed vigor for both his shop's trade and his ministry, delivering rousing sermons against the extravagance and usury typical of the European orthodox "lions" and "leopards" within of the Society of Friends.
It is during this period in the artist's life the Peaceable Kingdom paintings evolve. The schism forming within the Society of Friends, and a growing facility and success in his painting produced in Hicks an overwhelming desire to paint a sermon that would unite the Quaker factions through a message of peace and love. It was a task that would have been for the conflicted artist a significant effort, an effort he often described with reluctance - his love of painting something he considered a character flaw throughout his life. The result of this struggle between the artist's inherent love and talent for painterly work and his deeply felt religious beliefs is, in one form, what we have come to know today as Edward Hicks' rich body of easel work. It is a body of work which includes a range of varied and complex landscapes, suffused with descriptive and metaphorical imagery - a life's work that began with the Peaceable Kingdom.
The source image for Hicks' long sequence of Kingdom paintings was an engraving of a drawing by Robert Westall. Various English engravers copied the work for publications of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible, the image appearing above these lines from the book of Isaiah:
"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."
It is widely accepted the early Kingdom paintings are evidence of the artist teaching himself how to paint in his own imitation of academic style. His training as a sign painter would aid in the aspects of composition and form, and his familiarity with composing images from various elements taken from life and available print sources would give his compositions flexibility and an interior life. The composition of the series' supporting landscapes was similarly changeable, Hicks drawing imagery from Asher Durand's Delaware Water Gap and the Natural Bridge depicted in Henry S. Tanner's Cartouche from "A Map of North America" for example. He used his landscapes as both a means for presentation and message for each tableau, an ever shifting visual character and message that he described without pretense toward portraiture.
In 1827, the "Schism" or split within the Quaker Society of Friends had reached an impasse and Hicks' remarks at the Buckingham Quarterly meeting in February of that year likened the visiting English orthodox members "to destroying angels bent on denying Americans religious freedom so dearly won in the revolution." This divide within his beloved community would continue to plague Hicks' search for inner peace, a quest that he gave full reign to play out within the picture plane of his Kingdom paintings.
Hicks remained restless in many respects throughout his life, not the least of which was his ongoing search for new images and source material for his continuously evolving Kingdom pictures. He continued to assemble and restate his message in his unmistakable manner and style until the end of his life in August of 1849.
Many of the Kingdom pictures Edward painted were given as gifts to, if not expressly painted for, friends, neighbors and relatives. Close examination of many of these paintings that remain attached to their original stretcher supports, or those that are on panel, bear painted inscriptions lettered lovingly in the artist's hand. Similarly, a few Kingdom paintings were gifts of an intensely personal nature - rare testaments of affection and sentiment of which this Kingdom is one.
The painting's first owner, Thomas Janney, was fourteen years old when Mrs. David Twinning - wife of the then librarian of the Library Company of Newtown - called on his mother and "took pity on the little "Ned" Hicks." The young boy's ancestor, also Thomas Janney, would be remembered by having his name painted on a scroll in one of Hicks' Penn's Treaty landscapes for having been a favored councilor of William Penn. Thomas left the painting to his son Emmor Kimber Janney who was named for the man that later encouraged a troubled Edward to continue to pursue his ministry.
This Peaceable Kingdom stands as a transitional work at the leading edge of Hicks' late Kingdom imagery. The late Kingdom paintings as a group are characterized by ever-shifting compositions possessed of great strength and are evidence of a perfect hybrid of Hicks' sign painting skills and his achievements as an easel painter. Now comfortable in his painting style and the methods he used to compose each image, Hicks may have been trying again to achieve another format that would extend the linguistic of his painting. Whether he felt he had succeeded is unclear.
The seated lion of the earlier Kingdom paintings now rises to his feet with a renewed ferocity. Scholars have associated this figure's new stance with the possible introduction of a different print source as a starting point - possibly the Frontispiece of Wood's New York Preceptor a standing and alert lion that was first published in 1823.
Hicks adroitly addresses problems of spatial arrangement, perspective and crowding of the various players by returning to the flat-work planarity of his sign painting days. The landscape of the scene tilts toward the viewer presenting the cast of characters in a visually accessible plane. The supine leopard has resigned its long-standing foreground position and retreats to the background in the shade of the enclosing foliage. It is a transitional Kingdom composition whose staging seems to be taking some outside direction, redefining the composition while sorting out individual roles and relationships.
In an unusual gesture unique to this painting, the lion and the ox exchange particularly hardened gazes - a knowledgeable glare of ferocious understanding that exists as a focus of tension between these two principal players amidst the dynamic disorder of the reorganizing scene. It is an altercation that harkens back to the overall tension that pervaded the middle Kingdom imagery that corresponded to the height of the Quaker schism. We know from Hicks' writings that he evolved the figure of the lion, as early as the banner kingdom imagery, as an iconic representation of his "deep and enduring" distrust of the English orthodox Quakers. Here, we see that distrust vignetted in the Kingdom landscape, playing out in the lion's aggressive gaze directed toward the peace loving beast of burden.
As a commentary that stands between the vigorous tensions of the middle Kingdom paintings and the late Kingdoms visions of peace and ultimately - resignation, this Peaceable Kingdom is both emblematic of the artist at work - as a painter and a craftsman - and the Quaker minister whose vivid and direct approach to the nature of good and evil would result, some short months later in his famous Goose Creek Sermon delivered in Loudon, Virginia. It was a charismatic speech that offered a primer to the allegorical images and references that defined the meaning of the Peaceable Kingdom. A sermon that was remembered for being as haunting and memorable as it was unsparing; it stands today as heartfelt testimony from the devout artist and minister, not unlike the paintings themselves.
Scott Webster Nolley
Fine Art Conservation of Virginia
Note: Information in this entry was taken from Carolyn J. Weekley, The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999).