Edward Hicks's great, soft-eyed oxen stand for spiritual strength, patience, humility. Their presence in his "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings is powerful and comforting. His lions, though, can be fierce or gentle, depending on when a particular "Kingdom" was painted and what its creator was enduring at the time.
The artist, also a Quaker minister, created more than 60 versions of the "Peaceable Kingdom" throughout his life. The most comprehensive exhibition of his work, "The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks," is on view now at the Denver Art Museum through April 30.
Hicks (1780-1849), a self-taught artist, was a coach decorator and sign painter by trade, having been apprenticed to that trade when he was a lad. He never attempted to sell his greatest works, choosing to give away his kingdom pictures to friends and family.
He was an amateur in the best sense of that word - he painted for love rather than for profit. And it was a great struggle for him because his religion disapproved of making images as a frivolous endeavor. At one time he even tried to give up his trade and turned to farming - a vocation that nearly plunged him into bankruptcy.
He had to return to his original profession, and because he was such a fine minister, the Society of Friends made allowances. Unlike professional painters of his day, he painted the background landscape first, adding middle-ground and foreground figures later. Some of the figures painted in white are transparent now, because his white paint is a fugitive color that has degraded over time.
In the background of "Peaceable Kingdom" is William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, who is making a treaty with Native Americans for the land - one of the few treaties that was never broken by white settlers.
Hicks drew freely from print sources for the image of Penn and the Indians, as he did for his paintings of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and other presidents, and for images of exotic animals.
He had little understanding of human or animal anatomy. Consequently, his images of wild animals and little children have a naive quality that recommends itself to modern sensibilities. In fact, as Ann Daley, a curator of American art and curator of this show, points out, "Early 20th-century artists did look at Hicks. [French artist] Fernand Leger visited the US and said the best thing he'd seen in American art was Hicks's 'Peaceable Kingdoms.' "
The subject for "Peaceable Kingdom" came from the prophesy of Isaiah and Hicks's Quaker interpretation of the words: "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" (Isaiah 11:6).
Each of the animals stands for different human emotions, from the intelligent tractable goats to the innocent lambs, the sensual leopard, and the wily wolf. The carnivorous animals and their propensities for violence have been subdued, as the scriptural text implies.
These colorful, involving paintings have at their core a strong-minded grasp of human frailties and a profound vision of the redemptive possibilities of spiritual revelation - what the Society of Friends refers to as the "inner light" of an individual's relationship to God.
The "Kingdoms" reflect Hicks's faith and the situation of his church, which was in a state of growing schism during his years as a minister. There is nothing sentimental about the images - all of the emotions are fully earned - and they are rich with compassion for the human condition.
"Aesthetically, there is nobody like him, before or after," Ms. Daley says. "When Americans were looking to European painters for the 'correct' way to paint, here was an American original. He painted about the American land, the American farm, and they are very serious paintings. They are not meant as a diversion."
* 'The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks' was organized by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. After the Denver Art Museum, the exhibit travels to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., June 4-Sept. 4, and to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, Sept. 24-Jan. 6.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society