Edward Hicks: Quaker Religious Painter
Published on Sunday, April 7, 2013 - 8:52am
While walking through the West Building of the National Gallery, I found myself in the Early American section of the wing for American/English painting. I was surprised by what I saw in the room that was dedicated to showing Early American Paintings: Simply crafted portraits and landscapes that departed greatly from most rules of fine art.
The relation of that room to the nearby rooms added to the surprise. It was an exhibit room set right next to rooms showing the majesty of the Benjamin West and Copley portraits produced in the grand manner. Instead, here we find a set of portraits and landscapes that depict their subjects in a startlingly simple way. The paintings featured in this room seem more like direct documents of the life of their time. The artists are often called the American "naive painters."
The group of "Naive Painters" are defined as painters who had not been not given instruction in formal methods of art but were self-taught. In colonial and early national America, there were few places where one could be educated in the European traditions of art. So most American painters for the first 200 years were self-taught, amateur painters. They often started as sign painters and wagon painters who were occasionally hired to paint a portrait and developed the skills of painting on canvas. According to James Thomas Flexner in his classic history of American Painting, That Wilder Image: the Painting of America's Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer, these naive artists were called "limners" or those who drew outlines of things.
The National Gallery room features works made by American naive painters who created portraits of prominent local people and who painted familiar landscapes. Among these painting was the well-known painting of the Christ child among farm animals and wild animals called, The Peaceable Kingdom. The painting depicts a scene from the Prophet Isaiah painted by the Quaker Artist Edward Hicks.
The very idea of a Quaker artist is an odd concept because Quakers set aside the fine arts out of their focus on religious simplicity. However, Edward Hicks departed from this cultural stereotype to become a well-known painter in the Pennsylvania region. Edward Hicks, although a painter at times, was by profession a Quaker preacher who often used painting to express his Quaker theology. Regarding his style as a painter/preacher, I would say that Hicks is so powerful as a painter because he has a religious message to express. He tends to draw us into his world because he uses the very limitations of the naive painter to his advantage in creating a visionary world.
The Peaceable Kingdom
The Peaceable Kingdom expresses the common shared vision of the harmony of all creatures that is the symbol of the "Holy Experiment," the Pennsylvania colony founded by William Penn understood in ideal terms. Here we are shown the scene of harmony among all creatures described by the prophet Isaiah 11:6-8. The passage celebrates the state harmony that is predicted will exist among all creatures during the age of the triumph of the Messiah. It is expressed as a time when the "lion lies down with the lamb."
At first look, the painting gives you an aesthetic shock. You think you know the painting. You've seen the painting in illustrations in books on Early American Art, soft tones with painterly shading. In contrast, in real life, we are presented with sharply defined forms that bore into one’s brain. You immediately notice certain aspects of his style that stand out: There is the sharp linearity of his depiction of the shape of the animals and one observes a glowing inner light within each figure. One is sure that one is seeing allegorical figures and not a realistic landscape. The white whiskers of the lion stand out in fine detail and the soft hairs of the oxen capture our attention. The picture presents us with an image of the religious ideal of the harmonious life of the messianic age brought to life with inner glowing light that shine out from within the shape of the figures depicted in the painting.
The scene of the assembly of animals and children is also suffused with the emotion of love. In the arrangement where the lion lies down with the lamb and the ox with the leopard, one can see that they are hugged by the child in an affectionate embrace. This would indicate the power of innocence as a spiritual principle. And a young child in white clothing is accompanied by other children suggesting the life of childlike joy.
A visionary statement
In front of us, then, right in the American/British wing of the National Gallery, is a homegrown visionary painting. Also, there is a perfect balance in the composition of the painting that adds to the spiritual impact with the archetypal separation of the religious world of the animals on the right, set against the human world represented by the treaty of William Penn with the Indians shown on the left.
One is even more impressed by the spiritual message of the painting by learning that this vision was partly realized in the social realities of the ideal of the Pennsylvania colony where peace was kept with Native Americans. That spirit of peace was represented in this painting by the depiction of William Penn’s treaty with the Indian tribes of the region. These treaties were taken more seriously in the Quaker colony than elsewhere in the Americas. The Peaceable Kingdom suggests that the Pennsylvania colony was a partial realization of the Messianic ideal of the prophet now manifested in the new world.
The visionary statement of the painting comes close in power to the bright embodiment of religious ideals one finds in the work of William Blake, who expresses similar ideals of spiritual transformation in his illuminated book Songs of Innocence and Experience. In both artists, religious and spiritual ideals are shown through the use of strong lines and innovative use of light rather than in shadings and color of three dimensional objects indicative of traditional European artists with whom we are familiar. For both Blake and Hick, painting was intended to express a visionary experience or religious, prophetic vision. According to the historical record, Hicks himself was a dedicated preacher of the gospel who traveled through Pennsylvania preaching to different Quaker congregations. From this perspective and of consideration of his visionary style of painting, the Peaceable Kingdom would seem to be an inspired sermon expressed in the medium of paint.
One can learn more about the National Gallery in the helpful book: National Gallery of Art : Master Paintings from the Collection by John Oliver Hand.
More information about the engraving style of William Blake can be found in Kathleen Raine’s excellent book on his art entitled Blake and Tradition .