EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849)
EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849)
EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849)
2 More
EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849)


EDWARD HICKS (1780-1849)
oil on canvas laid on board
29 x 24 ½ in.
Painted circa 1835-1845
Isaac W. Hicks (1809-1898), the artist's son
Sarah Worstall Hicks (1858-1946), daughter
Hannah Brown (Hicks) Lee (1891-1974), niece
Eleanore Hicks (Lee) Swartz (1915-1986), daughter
Thence by descent

Brought to you by

Julia Jones
Julia Jones Associate Specialist

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

The following was provided by Scott Webster Nolley, Head Conservator, Smithsonian Institution Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in 2007:

" I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue
enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles,
the character of an Honest Man."
--George Washington

Newtown, Pennsylvania, the home of Edward Hicks, witnessed its first revolutionary war encounter with enemy troops on December 8, 1776. Days later, General George Washington, recently victorious at the Battle of Trenton, arrived and there drafted two reports of progress to Congress. Washington rejoined his troops outside of Newtown on December 30 and on January 3, attacked the British under Cornwallis, driving them into retreat. Such a proud part of the town's history was Washington's visit that, almost fifty years later when a popular engraving of Thomas Sully's oil painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware, (c. 1819)" came into the hands of local artist Edward Hicks, he copied the work relying on his training as sign and decorative painter, rendering it with his own personal calligraphic style. The subject of George Washington continues to appear throughout Hicks' body of work not only in his rereadings of Sully's painting, but as a figure in sign boards and easel works that continued to provide ample inspiration for his ability and imagination. It seems clear that George Washington was a perennial in Hicks' artistic thoughts. Recent examination of a Peaceable Kingdom painting dating from 1825 revealed casual sketches by the artist, repeated renderings of Washington's visage much as it is seen here, penciled over the canvas reverse.

This quarter length portrait of the first president of the United States was removed by the Hicks family from Edward's second floor painting shop after Edward's son announced plans to demolish the carriage house structure in 1875. It has remained in the family collection to this day. The painting's apparent spontaneity and thinly applied paint layers suggest the rendering existed as a reference sketch or unfinished work by the artist - a study in the manner of the very popular Gilbert Stuart portraiture that had already become the most viewed imagery of Washington to date.

Originally tensioned onto a four-member wood strainer, the painting had been removed from this auxiliary support, was rolled for storage, and then later adhered to a wood panel, presumably to additionally support the aging canvas. According to Hicks family oral tradition, the original image was freely retouched by Hicks' descendants, a layer of repaint that obscured the artist's poetic homage and resulted in its clouded attribution as a work by John Vanderlyn, an artist that worked briefly for Gilbert Stuart and whose work was known to Hicks. Recent research and subsequent conservation has revealed the image we see today, a painted image with all the visual hallmarks of the beloved folk artist's technique.

Hicks paints Washington in the head-and-shoulders format that characterizes the over seventy-five, nearly exact likenesses of the Athenaeum portrait (c. 1796) that Stuart himself painted over the course of his long career. Arguably the most recognizable image of our nation's forefather, this series of similar images was painted by Stuart during his stay in Philadelphia from 1795-1797, and during a period where he was seeing Washington constantly - creating variations that were indeed original compositions but with subtle variations in the compositional details and rendering of the sitter's face.

Washington is depicted here in the characteristic black velvet jacket and a white shirt with a linen ruffle against a neutral, softly luminous aureole of dark golden earth tones. Hicks clearly endeavors to follow in the brush strokes of Stuart, emulating his careful drawing and brilliant technique. The handling of the paint depicting the transparent lace ruffle, the bold lines of the sitter's jacket and the loose, curvilinear forms of the hair are all an attentive homage to Stuart's starting point. What makes this portrait a unique American icon are the naive, unschooled approaches to detail that this painting shares with Hicks other works. Here, Hicks makes the most of his background as a sign and decorative painter while attempting to render realism and academic style. The saw-toothed edges of the ribbon tying back Washington's queue in Stuart's work are replaced by soft lyrical folds. The hard edges of the shirt collar, lace ruffle that give Stuart's work a crisp presence are replaced by the curvilinear line work that is a hallmark of the sign painter's pictorial work beginning with his early Peaceable Kingdom paintings. The lyrical folds of the eyelids are achingly similar, if not direct reference, to those of the lion in Edward's middle and late Kingdom paintings. The large, almost awkward rendering of Washington's aquiline nose posterizes this feature, a characterization that makes the subjects identity all the more irrefutable, accessing Hicks bold talent in sign painting, a vernacular of imagery that is easily identified and recognizable..

The soft visual simplification that pervades Hick's Washington, seen when compared to Stuart's work, seems a personal and a historical inevitability. Stuart's sittings with Washington, produced academic portraits that are not only unflaggingly realistic, but also documents of a certain struggle within the artist himself to be at ease with, and to capture the character of a man who was not easily led to social familiarity. Hicks on the other hand had as his sitter not only the Stuart portraits but also an icon, Washington as the established exemplar of republican virtue; the shining example in schoolbooks and lessons that extolled his great personal integrity and a deeply held sense of duty, honor and patriotism.

Throughout his career as a Quaker minister and painter, the beloved American folk artist Edward Hicks sought to extend the reach of his ministry using the imagery of his easel painting, particularly his Peaceable Kingdom series, as visual message and metaphor. His more pragmatic works, including signboards, often drew on visual themes of a historic and patriotic nature. It is no wonder that the subject of George Washington resonated with Hicks' Quaker sensibilities as an embodiment of an ideology that at its core spoke of the virtues of moral purity, integrity, honesty, simplicity and humility. As an artist, his renowned success was not only due to his innovative compositions, but also to his inherent talent as a painter - often executing work of such an elaborate and decorative nature as to be considered inappropriate when viewed through the lens of the Society of Friends' tenets of simplicity and plainness. It was a contradictory environment for this sort of work, Quaker society neither approving of pictorial art nor forbidding it. The execution of signs and fireboards, only a fraction of the decorative works Hicks executed in his lifetime, gave the artist certain latitude within these religious restraints to flex his artistic muscle and to enjoy, especially in later years, a greater artistic freedom. This portrait image of Washington, kept by the artist in his studio, may have been just such a work, serving as a preliminary exercise, if not a visual reference work for subsequent Washington imagery - a personal and reverent experiment by the painter.
After the death of George Washington in December of 1799, there was tremendous demonstration of public grief, even from those of varying and differing political sentiments during the years of Washington's presidency. Funeral orations were delivered in almost every town and church across the country. Washington was compared to all the great figures of the classical and Biblical world, and Hicks' interpretation of the popular portrait image exists as just such a commentary on Washington historiography through the decades that followed.
So often a repeated image, it is very easy to undervalue the man or take him for granted. Perhaps that, in itself, pinpoints the nature of his legacy and his appeal to the Quaker minister and painter Edward Hicks as the incorruptible, "inner-directed man", the role model and essence of a character-type that we think of as peculiarly American, elusive to others, and whose legacy remains central to the concept of the presidential office in this country today.

Scott Webster Nolley
Chief Conservator
Fine Art Conservation of Virginia


1.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)

More from Important Americana

View All
View All