Thomas Hicks, (1823 -1890), Portrait of Edward Hicks, ca. 1850-1852, oil on canvas, H. 36.125 x W. 29.125 inches, James A. Michener Art Museum. Museum purchase funded by Eleanor K. Denoon, The Bella S. and Benjamin H. Garb Foundation Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Gemmill, George S. Hobensack, Jr., Laurence D. Keller, William Mandel, Members of Newtown Friends Meeting, Olde Hope Antiques, Inc., Residents of Pennswood Village, Eleanor and Malcolm Polis, Ms. Leslie E. Skilton, Kingdon Swayne and Anonymous Donors.
Portraits are created to not only provide a picture of their subjects, but also to tell us about them. The painter of this portrait uses a variety of visual clues and props to tell us more about his sitter. Looking closely, we notice the sitter holding a palette and three brushes in his left hand and another brush in his right. Behind him we see an open book, and to his right we see evidence of a painting in progress. He is well-dressed in mid-19th century style clothing with a set of spectacles sitting atop of his head. His receding hairline and the wrinkles on his face, indicate that he is an older person. Our eyes are drawn to the brightest area on his face, which is his forehead. The sitter is seated at an angle with his attention split between his canvas and the viewer. It is obvious that he is in the middle of working on his own painting while his portrait is being painted. The position of his body suggests that he has just turned towards someone as they enter the room. His somewhat neutral facial expression conveys a sense of seriousness and contemplativeness. All of these details reveal information about the sitter, who happens to be Edward Hicks, one of America’s most important primitive painters of the 19th century.
Thomas Hicks created this portrait, along with 2 others, of his cousin Edward, the earliest of which he painted around 1836 at the age of 13. Thomas had begun earlier that year to apprentice with his cousin in his sign painting shop in Newtown, Pennsylvania. The second version was created in 1839, and this third version was painted after Edward Hicks passed away, between the years 1850 and 1852.
Although he painted scenes of everyday life, Thomas achieved much recognition as a portrait painter. He received academic training in prestigious art schools along with studying in Paris with artist Thomas Couture. He painted well known public figures including the first oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, President George Washington and poet Charles Dickens. A portrait of his wife is in the collection of The Met.
Edward Hicks was a devout Quaker minister and sign painter born in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. He is best known for painting more than 60 versions of his famous work, The Peaceable Kingdom, an example of which can be found in this portrait by Thomas. As a young boy, Edward Hicks became an apprentice to a carriage maker and decorated coaches, signs, furniture, and household objects. As an adult, he spent time preaching to share the knowledge and insights of his Quaker faith with others. He didn’t make much money preaching, so he began painting in order to earn “an honest living.”
For him, painting was a way to find spiritual peace and to share that peace with his viewers. He enjoyed painting scenes from the Bible, stories from history, and views of Bucks County farm life. He painted historical events including George Washington crossing the Delaware River, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the Quaker William Penn signing a treaty with the Native Americans.
A self-taught artist, Edward used his Peaceable Kingdom paintings to teach a story from the Book of Isaiah that spoke about a future world where animals and people lived together peacefully. The book behind Edward in his portrait is most likely a Bible to further reference this important aspect of Edward’s life. Edward’s dress in somewhat formal attire is likely to indicate his status, rather than a realistic view of how he dressed while painting at his easel. The use of a strong light on Edward’s face most likely symbolizes the Quaker belief of each person having an “inner light” in their soul, an element of God’s spirit.
Visit the Michener’s mobile app and the Google Art Project to learn more about The Portrait of Edward Hicks. To learn more about Edward Hicks, see our previous blog post or visit the Michener’s Bucks County Artists’ Database.