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Hicks' The Peaceable Kingdom as Pennsylvania parable

Edward Hicks' painting, "The Peaceable Kingdom," blends biblical and historical scenes to depict peaceful coexistence. The foreground shows a child with wild animals, illustrating a prophecy from Isaiah. The background portrays William Penn's treaty with Native Americans, symbolizing the peaceful beginnings of Pennsylvania. Hicks, a Quaker, used his art to express his hopes for a peaceful world. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Narrator] We're in the Philadelphia museum of art, looking at a painting by Edward Hicks, called The Peaceable Kingdom. When you first look at this painting, you're struck by a couple of unusual things. It's got writing on all four sides, and also two very different scenes here in the same painting. - [Narrator] In the foreground of the painting, there's a small child, and it is a boy, and that may be a little confusing because he is wearing a dress, but at the time, little boys wore dresses just as little girls did, surrounded by animals that you would expect to eat him. - [Narrator] The child puts its arm around the neck of the lion as they walk together, the way you might walk with a dog. That's how calm and peaceful this is. - [Narrator] Above the lion's back, an ox is resting his head, to the side is a sheep and a leopard, and at the feet of the boy, a wolf and a lamb. This is a story in the Bible from the prophet Isaiah imagining what the world would look like when heavenly peace came to earth. Then as we move to the background of the painting, there's suddenly another group of people. Native Americans talking with a group of Europeans. - [Narrator] And the group seems to be focused on a document of sort. This is William Penn making a treaty with the Native Americans, and one of the ways we know that is the inscription that's along the bottom of the painting where we read, when the great Penn his famous treaty made, with Indian chiefs beneath the elm tree's shade. And the biblical scene corresponds to the text that's on the other three sides. On one side we read, the wolf did with the lambkin dwell in peace, his grim carnivorous nature there did cease. So that idea of peaceful coexistence. - [Narrator] In order to understand the painting, you have to understand Edward Hicks. He's a Quaker, and the painting's really talking about both the peace that he and other Quakers hope will eventually come to the world, and William Penn beginning the experiment of Pennsylvania. - [Narrator] As a Quaker, his faith was persecuted in England. - [Narrator] In 1682, Penn was granted land from the King of England and was able to bring a group of Quaker colonists to what became Philadelphia, and in that same year he signed a treaty with Lenape or Delaware Indians to coexist peacefully. - [Narrator] So Pennsylvania, as a place where religious tolerance, but also where Native Americans and the European colonists would coexist peacefully. And there were lots of colonists here. There were people from Sweden, from Finland, from the Dutch Republic, from England. - [Narrator] There were also lots of different faiths. - [Narrator] And when Penn signed the treaty, he made sure to pay the Lenape people for the land. - [Narrator] So for Hicks, these two things made perfect sense to bring together. - [Narrator] And his Quaker faith was very important to him. He was not just a member of the Society of Friends, but he was also a preacher. - [Narrator] He was also a decorative artist. - [Narrator] He painted signs, which is obvious from the inscriptions that we see on the four sides of the painting, it looks like shadow behind them. - [Narrator] It really has the feeling of being a sign. Hicks, at the age of 13, was apprenticed to a man who taught him how to put painted decorations on carriages. Hicks painted tavern signs and shop signs along with carriages, and I think you can really see that in this piece with the writing around the edges and the image in the center. - [Narrator] But being a Quaker meant that his art was a little bit on shaky ground. Quakers believe in living a life of simplicity, having only what you need, and painting was considered a luxury. - [Narrator] And that was very hard for Hicks to reconcile. And painting in a utilitarian way was the way that he could do that. Painting signs was something people needed. With paintings like The Peaceable Kingdom, Hicks never sold them, he gave them away. - [Narrator] And he made more than 60. - [Narrator] There were probably 65 in total that he made, and there's about 62 that still exist. And he painted other scenes as well, but this is the one that he came back to over and over. - [Narrator] And he did vary them, so some have William Penn in the distance, and some don't. And others speak to other issues, but unlike so many other artists whose work we look at from the beginning of the 19th century, many of whom went to Europe to study, Hicks has a very different kind of training, and so this painting may look a little different than other paintings in the gallery. - [Narrator] The kind of artwork he learned how to do was very graphic. It was about lettering, simple ways of drawing scenes so that they would be read at a distance, and when we look at his painting of The Peaceable Kingdom, there's a simplicity to it. But he did know about the kinds of paintings that were going on in Europe, and we know that he borrowed from two different artists to create this composition. - [Narrator] He based the foreground of the painting on a print that illustrated the same passage from the Bible. - [Narrator] And was in many of the Bibles he probably saw, and then in the background, he based the composition on a painting by Benjamin West that William Penn's son had commissioned. That painting was probably still in England, but he would have seen prints of it. When you put West's painting side-by-side with this work of art, you'll see that the group is actually reversed because of the printing process. - [Narrator] It's interesting that you mention William Penn's son, because he continues to have a relationship with the Lenape which is not quite so harmonious. - [Narrator] William Penn's sons wanted to secure more land for the colony, and in order to do that, they brought back a discussion around a pact called the Walking Treaty. - [Narrator] Thomas Penn was not quite reasonable in his end of the bargain. They cheated, they ran. They got three of the best runners in Pennsylvania to do the walk, and they mapped out the route. - [Narrator] Although he was a sign painter, there's real skill here too in the landscape, figures, and the lovely atmospheric perspective that draws our eye into the background. - [Narrator] He's painting several seasons. The section of the painting where the child and the animals are, it seems to be autumn, but when we look into the background, it appears to be spring or summer, the sense of this new beginning of the colony, and then the richness of the harvest, the fruition of all these seeds that are being planted in the foreground. You can see that he'd holding a grapevine because grapes were a symbol of redemption. - [Narrator] So here we are looking at a piece of Pennsylvania history, William Penn, but also Edward Hicks, the artist, and his Quaker faith, thinking back to the founding of Pennsylvania as an American colony. (jazzy music)