COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Edward Hicks’ "Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" and Thomas Cole's "Home in the Woods"

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COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Edward Hicks’ "Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" and Thomas Cole's "Home in the Woods"

By Kathleen Hutton, Director of Education | @LearnReynolda

There is always a great deal of excitement and interest when we host a temporary exhibition in the Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery.  Borrowing and displaying works of art from other museums expands the interpretation and deepens visitors’ understanding of American art. It is also an opportunity to re-examine and learn more about the objects in Reynolda House’s own American art collection.  

Our online gallery, The West in the American Imagination, features art about white settlement of the land which European Americans initially regarded as wilderness, although it was home to American Indian tribes.   This online exhibition is intended as an online resource as well as a complement to the exhibition on view through May 3, 2015, George Catlin’s American Buffalo.  This is the first of three blog posts about a specific pair of objects in the Reynolda House collection that are relevant to the art of George Catlin (1796-1872).

IMAGE CREDIT: Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, (1826-1849). Oil on canvas, Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Like Catlin, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was a native of Pennsylvania, born in the early years of the new American nation.   The painting by Hicks in the Reynolda collection, Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, c. 1826-30, was painted around the time of the 1830 Indian Removal Act of President Andrew Jackson’s administration.  There are many symbolic expressions of peace in this painting, including the figure of Hick’s hero William Penn shaking hands with the Lenni Lenape (also called Delaware) Chief Tamanend.  In 1683 these two leaders pledged “to live together in peace as long as the creeks and rivers run and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.”  

It’s a very small detail, so you’ll have to look carefully and use the zoom feature.  Hicks even included the so-called Penn Treaty Elm (tree) in the scene!  

  • Look carefully at this painting, and think about the animals as they are shown here.  What do you notice?
  • What else did Hicks paint to symbolize love, or friendship?
  • How would you include symbols of peace and love in a painting besides heart shapes and peace signs?

The artist Hicks was well aware that William Penn’s own descendants and subsequent Pennsylvanians had broken their promises to the Lenape people (also called the Delaware) many times.  The Indians were forced to relocate west, first to Ohio (some went to Canada), then to Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and finally to Oklahoma, where the Delaware Tribe of Indians is based today.  Yet the “Penn Treaty Elm” remained famous long after the time of Penn’s original treaty in 1683.  Located in the Kensington area of Philadelphia along the banks of the Delaware River, it fell during a storm in March 1810.   Souvenirs including furniture and small keepsakes were made from its wood, later presented to dignitaries including Chief Justice John Marshall and President Abraham Lincoln.

For more information on this painting and Edward Hicks, visit our online collection.

The 19th century in the United States began with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and came to an end with the closing of the frontier in 1893.   The phrase “Manifest Destiny,” coined by a New York newspaper editor in 1845, described the belief  popularly accepted by Americans that the United States was divinely ordained to expand westward and occupy the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  As President Jackson asked in an 1830 address to Congress, 

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?”  

Not everyone shared Jackson’s conviction that such transformation of the lands west of the Mississippi was a good thing even though most would have thought it inevitable.  From his first visit west in 1832, George Catlin was driven by a desire to document the American Indians of the Plains. Catlin held a view, widely shared at the time, that white settlement and Indian cultures were in direct conflict and that the result would be the extinction of indigenous peoples. Without sharing Catlin’s concern for the Indians’ fate, the artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) expressed his regret for the vanishing wilderness in  his “Essay on American Scenery,” published in American Monthly Magazine (January 1836):

(. . .) the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.  It is the most distinctive, because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified (. . .) (a)nd to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant (. . .) Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away--the ravages of the axe are daily increasing--the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation (. . .) This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel. . .”

George Catlin would have been surprised and pleased to know that American Indians have not disappeared but comprise part of a vibrant and varied contemporary American society. Thomas Cole would undoubtedly approve of the National Parks and other agencies that safeguard beautiful wilderness in the United States for future generations.

IMAGE CREDIT: Thomas Cole, Home in the Woods, (1847). Oil on canvas, Reynolda House Museum of American Art. 

Cole’s Home in the Woods (1847) in the Reynolda House collection depicts a beautiful landscape featuring a lake, mountains and forest as well as the beginning of the transformation of the wilderness into “civilization.”   In this detailed image of a pioneer family’s home and possessions, Cole is quite sympathetic and each family member is seen as resourceful, hard-working and loving.  Cole’s contemporary audience would understand that the initial clearing of the land was only the beginning and would progress to larger farms, then villages, towns and eventually cities.

  • What material(s) did this family use for shelter?
  • What kind(s) of food do you think this family ate? 
  • What were their daily chores?
  • What material(s) do you think this family used for clothing?
  • Do you see how they chose to decorate their home?
  • How did they travel places?
  • Where did they get the supplies they needed but could not grow or make themselves?

Select one of the George Catlin paintings showing the daily life of different Plains Indian tribes and ask these same questions.  How are your answers for Home in the Woods different How are they the same?


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