The Artist Who Drew a Peaceable Kingdom
A LOP-EARED rabbit, four large cats, a dog with hunting instincts, several mice, a ferret, and a few fish live together at our house, tolerating each other with more or less good nature. I like to think of it as a "peaceable kingdom" where creatures with different natures and temperaments can thrive together side-by-side without fighting. My little children are big teenagers now, but we have always had lots of animals around, and we have always tried to build the "peaceable kingdom" at our house.
Of course, our peaceable kingdom is made up of domesticated animals. They had to be taught to live in harmony with each other, but domesticated animals tend to be easy to persuade. Over the piano in the living room is a picture of another kind of "Peaceable Kingdom." In this picture, wild animals rest side-by-side with farm animals. A lion romps beside a lamb; a leopard beside a baby goat; a bear, a wolf, a cow, and a ram nestle side-by-side; and a little child peeks out among them. The child is not afra id. Off in the distance, behind the animals, are a group of English Quakers lead by William Penn making a treaty with native Americans to settle on the Indians' land, which was later named Pennsylvania (Penn-sylvania meaning Penn's Woods).
The picture is by the self-taught artist Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher of Pennsylvania (1780-1849), who, among other things, painted coaches and signs to support his wife and children. He also painted a good many pictures including historical subjects, landscapes, and Noah's arks. But his favorite subject was the "peaceable kingdom," which he painted over 100 times.
To understand why this subject appealed so much to him, it helps to know something about his life. Edward had a difficult life, though it was also a good one. He was raised in a good Quaker house by a lady he called Mother, since his own mother had died and his father could not care for him. But though his foster mother was kind, his foster father showed no interest in him.
When he was young, he was apprenticed to a coachmaker. There in that shop he became just "one of the boys," a bit wild. But when he grew up, he began to have deep, searching thoughts about religion and his own place in the world. He remembered the teachings of his foster mother and turned back to the faith of his early youth, joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), married a young woman he'd known since childhood, and set about changing his life.
Very soon it was clear to him that he was meant to be a preacher, and in the manner of his people, he stood up in "meeting" (the Quaker religious service) often and preached spontaneously. Over the years he became renowned for his preaching ability among the Friends.
But he was also something of a controversial figure, too. Sometimes his temper got the best of him, and he said unreasonable things, even while preaching. He made a lot of enemies. He sometimes referred to people he thought were on the wrong side of an argument as bears or lions or wolves. Some of the peaceable kingdom paintings may have represented a longing for reconciliation - the Friends learning to be friends again. (At that time there were disagreements over religious issues among the Quakers.)
But the peaceable kingdom paintings are about many things. The wild animals and the domestic animals living peacefully together is an idea Hicks took from the Bible, from the book of Isaiah: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."
These lines concern a promise about the future - really a vision of a heavenly state. The writer uses a metaphor about animals who would be natural enemies living peacefully together. Hicks loved this image for lots of reasons. He didn't believe in war, and he did believe that eventually all the cruelty and hatred among people and in nature would have to stop.
In the background of most of the peaceable kingdom paintings is William Penn, who had also been a Quaker preacher, and whose many sermons comforted and sustained Hicks throughout his life. Hicks had great respect for Penn's honorable treaty with the Indians, which was never broken. The future peaceable kingdom is linked in these paintings to the past honorable action of a good man.
The way Hicks painted the peaceable kingdom changed a great deal over the years. Never trained in art school, his paintings don't look like other serious paintings by professional artists. Hicks may be called a "naive" artist, meaning "self-taught." But there is nothing unskilled about the paintings, either. Particularly in the last years of his life, he developed quite beautifully balanced pictures in which the rich earth tones seem to glow with an inner light - appropriate to the artistic endeavor of a
Friend who believed that everyone, male and female, came equipped with an "inner light" of truth.
The number of children leading the animals or playing sweetly nearby changes from painting to painting. In some of the paintings, the only animals that really look like the originals are the farm animals. The cow shows up in all the peaceable kingdoms, as does the lion and the leopard. The cow looks like a real cow. But the lion and the leopard are far removed from reality. That is because Hicks had to rely on book illustrations for his models.
But what is much more interesting about the animals are their expressions. In the early and middle periods of Hick's life, the lion and the leopard often look startled or angry or sad. In one, in fact, the leopard looks fierce as it stands and roars over a small child. Was the artist struggling to find peace when he felt no peace? Critics have speculated that these troubled looks may have reflected the artist's own state of mind when circumstances were difficult. Only rarely in the early paintings and in
the last paintings of the artist's life do the animals look completely content.
But for me, those expressions mean something else. Even the angriest-looking lion or the fiercest leopard still is lead by the little child, still walks beside the innocent lamb or lies down beside the tender kid. There is more promise than threat in these pictures. For me, they point beyond what the artist may have experienced in his personal life to what he felt to be true and possible, despite his many hard economic, health, and community problems. Hicks seems to be saying that the peaceable kingdom i s something to work for, no matter how hard it might be to achieve. And that in spite of human or animal fault, some measure of the peaceable kingdom is possible on earth. In the last paintings he did, with the leopard stretched out resting, the lion eating hay, and the cow bending over him, it is even clearer that Hicks himself experienced a little of that peaceable kingdom.
I love the picture over my piano, and so does my family. Building a peaceable kingdom seems only natural, since kindness itself is natural.
The rabbit, the dog, the cats, the ferret, the mice, and the fish in our house may not be lions and tigers and bears, but they are creatures who would not naturally seek each other's company. And here they are, friendly beasts, each and all. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.