Works by Edward Hicks exhibited for the first time in two decades

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Works by Edward Hicks exhibited for the first time in two decades
Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Peaceable Kingdom, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 1832-1834. Oil on canvas. From the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection, gift of David Rockefeller, 1932.101.1

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- The nineteenth-century Quaker artist, Edward Hicks (1780-1849), is one of the country’s best known American folk painters. His Peaceable Kingdom paintings, a series of over five dozen canvases based on the biblical prophecy of Isaiah, are some of the most beloved in American art. Today, they offer relevant messages of hope for a peaceful coexistence in the world. Hicks’ art, ironically, caused him much anguish. Colonial Williamsburg is the proud owner of the largest single collection of works by Hicks, and for the first time since 1999, many of these works will be on view together in The Art of Edward Hicks at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, The exhibition, which features nearly all of Hicks paintings in the collection as well as a portrait of the artist by his nephew, opened on June 14 and will remain on view through December 31, 2022.

“Colonial Williamsburg’s assemblage of Hicks’ work is of national importance, but we have rarely been able to fully share it due to a lack of exhibition space” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice present for museums, preservation, and historic resources. “The Hicks collection and many other noteworthy groups of material will now be regularly on public view.”

Edward Hicks began his career at age 13 as an apprentice to a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, coach painter, a position that provided him with the trade skills he later used in easel painting. As a young man, Hicks was accepted into the Society of Friends and later became a Quaker minister. His devotion to his faith affected every aspect of his work; and often, he struggled with the impulse to create while adhering to the tenets of a religion that viewed formal painting as “vain” and “self-indulgent.” He responded by devoting energies to spiritual and educational messages, seen in dozens of his Kingdom paintings as well as in numerous patriotic, historic and landscape scenes. In many instances, he shared his biblically-inspired messages with friends and fellow Quakers by giving them his paintings. By his death, Hicks had created over 100 works.

Laura Pass Barry, Colonial Williamsburg’s Juli Grainger curator of paintings, drawings, and sculpture curated the exhibition and said, “The Foundation has collected the work of Edward Hicks for nearly 80 years and since that time, we have continued to appreciate and celebrate his timeless messages of peace, everlasting hope, and friendship.”

Among the highlights of The Art of Edward Hicks, is The Peaceable Kingdom, a composition that is the most recognizable of his paintings (image shown beneath the headline). Hicks based early versions of the nearly 65 canvases on imagery and subjects taken directly from the Bible. The prophecy of Isaiah 11:6-9, with its message of a peaceable coexistence, was particularly meaningful to Hicks as he struggled with the mounting tensions within the Society of Friends. When the Society split into the two factions of Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers in 1827, the event deeply affected the painter. He rearranged the figures in his Peaceable Kingdom paintings to reflect his anguish, no longer wholly copying printed sources for his compositions. Over time, his canvases evolved into personal statements that became entirely his own in concept and design. In this version of the series, portraying a seated lion, Hicks removed symbols such as the grapevine that were associated with Holy Communion and Orthodox Quaker acts and replaced them with sheaves of wheat and ears of corn that better represented shared Hicksite Quaker beliefs of salvation achieved through the “light within.” This oil on canvas, which was painted between 1832 and 1834, was in the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and acquired by her in the early 20th century at a time when scholars were just learning about the significance of the artist and his breadth of work. The painting came to Colonial Williamsburg as part of Rockefeller’s initial gift in 1939.

Leedom Farm, an 1849 oil on canvas, is another featured painting in the exhibition. In addition to his Peaceable Kingdoms, Hicks painted farmscapes and this rendering is like no other. Completed during the last year of his life, this work is arguably Hicks’s finest combining the artist’s remarkable skill, his love of family and friends and his innate Quaker values of order, simplicity and man’s good works on earth. Leedom Farm is a highly personal statement about the serenity Hicks so ardently desired for humanity and for his step-brother and friend, David Leedom, who commissioned the painting.

A third highlight of the exhibition is this Landscape View signed and dated from 1818. A recent acquisition, it is a rare example of Hicks’s artistic process and is the only known finished drawing by him. It was created at a time when Hicks was fully immersed in coach and sign painting and quite possibly represents the artist’s first attempt at creating a more formal work of art. While the subject of farms appears much later in his body of material, this watercolor corresponds with entries in Hicks’s account book for landscape orders and most likely was meant to serve as a presentation piece for the property’s owner. About the work, Barry said, “Just when you think you know everything about an artist, a new object comes along and challenges your thinking.”

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