On Edward Hicks
Our beloved Edward Hicks (1780–1849), painter of 62 Peaceable Kingdoms, was, we learn, maybe not so easily loveable. He was trouble, to put it lightly. And an early master of appropriation, pastiche and transhuman identity—he needed all that and more, to stand his ground and say his say.
In his own lifetime, hardly anyone knew the celebrated (and impossibly contentious) Quaker speaker also painted. 4,000 friends attended his funeral but how many souls did he ever actually agree with and deep down, how far did he ever really trust other people? Outside the Meeting, he gladly dispensed with words. He was a professional painter, whose signage, clock-faces, cabinetry, and carriages are lost, though his images were, thankfully, remarkably well conserved. Though he lived at the very pivot of his community (Newtown, Pennsylvania), alone in his shop, turning himself inside out … animals did his talking. They were real, and not. Hicks didn’t see his resplendently louche leopards in Bucks County, though, in his day the natural world was still the world. Overnight, even townspeople heard plenty of rude noise from the other side, but the Kingdoms are no picture of their place, or times. And no utopia, either. The surprisingly restless pictures live because they are so many windows to someone’s unfinished business.
A Kingdom is a tableau of two parties, and two simultaneous events, foreground and middle. The distance beyond, like an atmospheric curtain, is un-peopled landscape, equal parts Hudson River and Susquehanna Valley. Is the stage-front quiet among predator and domestic animals a consequence of William Penn’s negotiation with the Lenape peoples on the river bank behind them? One comes to doubt it. The human figures (tiny) and the animals (big as life, and near) stand on separate, non-communicating buttes. The people, so much like flat tin toy figures, stand for something not to be forgotten, but quite left behind. The foreground is now, where real skin is in the game. Whatever is happening, really—it might seem to be all in the lion’s head—one gathers that the animals knew it first, and better. They are a far more complex and cognizant lot than the human figures, and not entirely convinced by their peaceable magic, either. They quite remember, and some rather regret their ebbing sovereignty.
The creatures are indelible characters, but Hicks wasted no time on anatomy, or cloud studies. He supplied a surprisingly big chunk of his iconography off the shelf, via cut-and-pastes from printed matter—all black and white. He lifted chunks of landscape, various characters, human and animal, and modified them only for size and fit. These bits were swapped about, benched, and called back again at need; only the brooding lion and the bulwark ox hold their places. Maybe only such a solitaire-practice, all face-cards, could facilitate Hicks’s play of antagonists, competitors, believers, ingénues, hypocrites, and fakes. The Kingdoms in their full number are a moving picture. In effect, a family regathering—in the author’s felicitous expression, an “outdoor living room,” with relations dropping in and out, fraying, clinging and stumbling on, over 40 years.
Color and painting itself were Hicks’s alone. The colors are still gorgeous now, with the accumulated depth of an old musical instrument. Though cracked, the paint is still enamel-like—remember, the guy was a pro; grinding his own colors, some of which he may well have gathered locally. His hand is as subtle as it is tradesman-matter-of-fact. Looking close, one sees the sequential operations of a carriage-liner, or a sign painter; no scumbling, no hurry, no false moves—which is also the methodical practice of the old masters Hicks never knew. For them, limning a face was like building a chair. One thing at a time. Body color just that; it cowls a cat’s head in outline. Over it goes the leopard’s larger spots, his inner spots next, smeared over them. Into a shapely lid goes a staring eye, like an apple in a dish. Pupil over that, glinting highlight last. Some liquid-gaze ruminants don’t get them—they don’t look back.
Hicks and the Society of Friends were made for each other. As a young man, not yet Quaker, he had a positive genius for profanity, and singing, and loose talk, and self-accusation. His waking conscience was, one might say, first-predator to himself. Words made Hicks, before we know him to have drawn a line, but lifelong, in his very next unguarded moment, a word might be his explosive undoing. In Meeting, he was a respected speaker-out who by unremitting effort only just channeled himself right. So long as his eruptive impulse carved along the cares and forms of the community, he shone. Quaker “drab” hid the fact that Hicks was a man with too damned much to say and not enough seemly place to put it.
Words could not account for everything Hicks had to quiet (if not tame), but somehow, perhaps in the shop, perhaps in the illustrated bibles of his day, he found his way to pictures. Silent pictures, that worked his ends out of public sight and alone with himself. And the animals—each the token of a thousand muted words—characters without names or position, doctrine, double-talk, or apologies.
On Edward Hicks could be/would be the title of an essay in appreciation, but the subject considered seriously, it had to be more. Sanford Schwartz has more than mastered the literature and wears it lightly, but Hicks being Hicks, and this critical study being so insightful, it is necessarily narrative. The author’s understated lucidity (sometimes vanishingly funny) gives way eventually to the drama of the progress of a soul, and the artist’s last day. Hicks had trusted only what he couldn’t see and painted to make things for himself to look at. He was working at his last Kingdom on his last day. As the author suggests, Hicks meant to bring the lion, ox, leopard, lamb, bear, goats, kid, and wolf to a safe place, before leaving himself. On their part, his characters had straightened the path toward his fondest dream … to somehow be at one with his world, and himself, at once.