Friday, April 4, 2008

Minister of Peace

“My constitutional nature has presented formidable obstacles to the attainment of that truly desirable character, a consistent and exemplary member of the Religious Society of Friends,” wrote Edward Hicks in his posthumously published Memoirs, “ one of which is an excessive fondness for painting, a trade to which I was brought up, being connected with coach making, and followed the greatest part of my life.” Born April 4, 1780 and reborn around 1800 as a Quaker minister, Hicks continually fought his “fondness for painting,” which he saw as worldly and sinful, “a link in the chain of anti-Christian foibles next to music and dancing.” Hicks found resolution in creating religious images promoting the pacifism of the Society of Friends, most famously the sixty or so works known as The Peaceable Kingdom. The example above (from 1833-1834) not only depicts the words of Chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah, where the lion lays down with the lamb and a little child leads them, but also shows the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, forming a peace treaty with the local Lenape tribe. In 1999, I saw nearly half of the Peaceable Kingdom paintings all together at an exhibition at the PMA. The sheer repetition of the imagery wore me down a bit, but I wish now that I’d have gone back to look more closely at this unique figure in American art.

Because he painted the words of Isaiah so many times, it’s hard to imagine him painting anything else. Of course, Hicks grew up painting carriages and store signs first as an apprentice and later as the owner of his own business. “I should be a burthen on my family or friends were it not for my knowledge of painting,” Hicks wrote, acknowledging that all his service to the Society of Friends brought him no income. I’m fascinated by Hicks’ Washington at the Delaware (above, from 1849) in how it portrays Hicks’ perception of the heroic George Washington, whose mythology bloomed beyond reason immediately after his death and continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. Living in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania, Hicks undoubtedly knew people who had seen Washington in action and perhaps even fought at his side. Characteristically, Hicks shows Washington during a moment of peace, being too much of a pacifist to show the Father of His Country in battle. Hicks’ painting of Washington’s horse is wonderful. After riding horseback for thousands of miles, preaching the Quaker way as far as Canada, Hicks clearly knew every inch of what a horse looked like.

Hicks’ memoirs frustrate for the most part those looking for some glimpse into his painting style. Most of the memoirs deal with his faith, sprinkling disparaging remarks about painting here and there. I’d love to know what was going through Hicks’ mind when he put those human-like features on the animals in some of his Peaceable Kingdom paintings or where he saw some of the more exotic animals gathered in his Noah’s Ark (above, from 1846). Hicks, however, does end his memoirs by evoking the words of Isaiah: “Finally, my friends, farewell! May the melancholy be encouraged and the sanguine quieted; may the phlegmatic be tendered and the choleric humbled; may self be denied and the cross of Christ worn as a daily garment; may his peaceable kingdom for ever be established in the rational, immortal soul; then will be fulfilled the prophetic declaration of the infinitely wise Jehovah, through his evangelical prophet—“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf, and the young lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… Nothing shall hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” How amusing it would be to Hicks that his most lasting legacy of his pacifist faith would be the paintings he saw as a sinful diversion from God’s work.

No comments: