I decided I was sorely lacking in knowledge about the history of art here in the US of A, so I checked out “Smithsonian Q&A: American Art and Artists” from the library. In my mind, America had western art (cowboys & Indians), landscape art (Niagara Falls & geysers in Yellowstone), modern art (Pollock’s drip paintings & Warhol’s soup cans) and not much else.
I haven’t gotten very far in the book yet, but I’ve found an artist I like, whose work is very unlike the European works I typically love. Ahem, without further ado, Noah’s Ark, by Edward Hicks:
In case you aren’t up on your Old Testament bible stories, this painting depicts a male and a female animal of every species on the planet, two by two, joining Noah and his family on a giant boat built in the middle of a drought on dry land. Then, rain comes and covers the whole earth.
They like to tell this story in Sunday School to little kids, I suppose because it has animals in it, and who doesn’t like animals?
I get the strong feeling that Hicks loved animals, particularly exotic animals. An American born in Pennsylvania in 1780 would not have had many opportunities to see real live lions, giraffes, and zebras. The first zoo in America wouldn’t open until 1874. That didn’t keep Mr. Hicks from painting them in 1846. The camels have particularly odd proportions.
While I find all the animals amusing and nice enough to look at, the part of this painting that makes this interesting for me, the part that makes me want to write about it, is this guy:
Hello, Mr. Lion. You see me. Your paw is lifted, prepared to continue marching toward the ark, but you seem sad. It is a knowing look, and it makes me feel sad too, despite the menagerie before me.
See, friends, I think the lion knows the real story. This is not a happy children’s fairy tale. There may be a rainbow at the end, but there is much darkness and death that comes first. If you look closely, back behind the animals on the lake’s edge, there are houses. They are faint, but they are there.
Sure, they look like New England farm houses that Hicks’ neighbors might live in, but these represent ancient dwellings about to be wiped off the face of the earth. When the flood came, everyone who wasn’t on that boat would drown. The story of Noah’s ark is about when God became so fed up with everyone on earth that he decided to destroy everyone but one extended family, and a mating pair of every animal species. It is a story about how awful people had become, and the extreme measures God went to correct their actions.
It is horrifying. In some ways it reminds me of exasperated parents who, at their wits end, say “if you ___ one more time, I’m gonna kill you.” Except the parents don’t follow through.
The lion seems to know the fate of those not on the boat.
If this work is about sadness at the consequences for the terrible actions of humanity, it is redeemed by the theme of the bulk of Edward Hicks’ oeuvre. He only painted Noah’s ark once, but he painted the “Peaceable Kingdom” over a hundred times.
In Isaiah 11:6-9 it says:
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
I imagine Hicks, a Quaker minister, painted such a multitude of Peaceable Kingdoms in order to do his part to fill the land with the previously mentioned “knowledge of the Lord,” and the hoped-for peace he depicted. I see Hicks, not condemning the world for its shortcomings, but urging us on to better things, showing us a different way. In the background of many of these paintings, you will see a group of Native Americans with Quaker leader William Penn discussing a peace treaty. Hicks included the best example of peace he knew in his time as part of his Peaceable Kingdom.
I find the scripture’s simile about water ties the two different biblical subjects together. With the ark, water brought destruction to every living thing that wasn’t on Noah’s boat. With the passage in Isaiah, the “water”, aka, knowledge of God, brings peace to every living thing. I’m glad Edward Hicks spent most of his time painting the hopeful message.
Ultimately, the story of Noah’s ark ends with God promising to never wipe out creation ever again. And the passage in Isaiah seems to be referencing the coming of Jesus, who would eventually come to show us how to live better and offer us grace (rather than punishment) for all our shortcomings. In my mind, Hicks was showing us how we could follow Jesus’ example and bring that heavenly kingdom a little closer to home: by making peace with our neighbors.
Oh, and I’m still pretty sure Hicks had a thing for animals.
How do you feel when the lion stares at you? Is there art that has inspired you to live better?
The Athenaeum has the largest online collection of Hicks’ work that I could find, including 51 versions of The Peaceable Kingdom.
Wright, Tricia. Smithsonian Q&A: American Art and Artists. Harper Collins Publishers. New York. 2007. Print.