An act of faith: Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

The 19th-century Quaker artist Edward Hicks painted some of American folk art’s most cherished works. Specialist Sallie Glover explains how, in a series of works featuring animals and children, he reconciled creative impulses with religious beliefs

Towards the end of his life the self-taught artist Edward Hicks described himself as ‘a poor old worthless insignificant painter’. Little did he know that a century and a half later he would become one of the most highly covetable folk artists in America, with his canvases being sold for more than $1 million at auction.

The story of Edward Hicks (1780-1849) is a fascinating one. A coach painter turned Quaker preacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he reconciled his religious beliefs with his artistic ambitions by only painting scenes that reflected his spiritual outlook. As specialist Sallie Glover explains, ‘As a Quaker he valued simplicity. Creativity was often frowned upon.’

To this end he began a series of paintings that came to be known as his Peaceable Kingdoms. The subject matter is taken from Isaiah 11: 6-9, in which animals are described as living in a serene and orderly manner. Glover believes Hicks was drawn to the verse because ‘it highlighted the Quaker beliefs of peace and harmony’.

In total, Hicks made 62 known versions of Peaceable Kingdom, a number of which are now held in museums today, including The Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Peaceable Kingdom, circa 1833. Oil on canvas. 17½ x 23½ in. Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints on 17-18 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Peaceable Kingdom, circa 1833. Oil on canvas. 17½ x 23½ in. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints on 17-18 January 2019 at Christie’s in New York

On 18 January, a painting from the series will be offered at Christie’s in New York in the Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver and Prints  sale. The work, says Glover, is from the middle period of his career, around 1833, and is one of his most fully developed kingdoms: ‘You really see the series change throughout his life. They start quite simply with children and animals, but get more sophisticated over time.’

An intriguing detail of this particular painting is the inclusion of a rare autobiographical link. Since Hicks lost his mother at an early age it is often thought, says the specialist, that this second, female lion is ‘alluding to that desire for a connection he didn’t have.’

In the background, we see William Penn (1644-1718) signing a peace treaty with the Lenape peoples. According to tradition, soon after Penn arrived in Pennsylvania in October 1682 he met with the Native Americans — know to European settlers as the Delaware Indians — in the riverside town of Shackamaxon where, in the shadow of an elm tree, they exchanged promises of lasting friendship.

‘It really affected Hicks,’ says Glover. 'He believed that peace could be attained.’