One of the most famous American paintings is this from Edward Hicks. It’s part of a series of 61 such paintings he did in a series called Peaceable Kingdom. This particular painting is the most famous of his collection.
In the foreground, we see an impossible scene – predators and prey just sort of hanging out together. We’ve got a lion, a tiger, a leopard, a wolf, a bear, some sort of werewolf creature there. And they’re all looking very surprised next to a bull, ox, calf, goat and sheep. And playing with them are some cherubic little children, who seem utterly unconcerned to be in the presence of so many big, dangerous animals.
This is obviously a fictitious scene, and it’s one that’s meant to comment on the scene in the background. That is a historical event, one that took place 140 years before Hicks painted this work.
It depicts the signing of a treaty between Tammany, the leader of the Lenni Lenape nation and one William Penn, who founded the British colony of Pennsylvania. We don’t have any surviving copies of the treaty, but scholars believe it was signed (or agreed upon if it wasn’t on paper) in 1682.
William Penn was a Quaker, a strand of Christianity committed to, among other things, direct, personal experience of God and peace-making.
Unlike other British colonists, Penn refused to wage war against Indigenous nations to acquire land. He engaged with Indigenous nations like the Lenape the same as he did with other Europeans (a radical idea – to treat the Lenape as people, not savage sub-humans).
This treaty was one example of that – Penn insisted on buying land from the Lenape at a fair price. The Quakers engaged in mission work that looked much more like the Pilgrimage model we explored a couple of weeks ago than the violent conquest that characterized much of the rest of European colonization of the Americas.
No wonder, then, Hicks chose to paint these two scenes next to each other. He painted this scene at a time when the relationship between the US and Native nations was worsening. We were less than a decade from Andrew Jackson’s genocidal presidency and the infamous Trail of Tears. A generation of Americans had pressed into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory, bringing new conflicts with even more native nations.
It’s fair to ask which of these scenes would have been less believable for Hicks – that of predator and prey living in harmony or Europeans treating Native nations with dignity and respect.
But keep in mind, Hicks was depicting a scene that wasn’t impossible – Penn had demonstrated it was possible for a European to do just that – live in peace and harmony, in mutual respect with Native nations.
If the US had adopted Penn’s attitude toward Native nations, rather than that of Jackson and his kind, we would have avoided innumerable atrocities carried out in the name of the Monroe Doctrine and Westward Expansion.
So Hicks’ painting is one of hope. It’s grounded in historical reality and also an act of imagination. A desire to see a better world, one that he doesn’t see around him. Hicks’ painting is grounded in the words of the prophet Isaiah, another person who offered images of hope in impossible times.