An eighteenth-century sign painter who was of the Quaker faith, Edward Hicks would have been shocked to learn that one of his paintings sold for more than $4 million at a Christie's art auction in New York last winter. Late in life he wrote, "If the Christian world was in the real spirit of Christ, I do not believe there would be such a thing as a fine painter in Christendom."

Hicks was born in 1780 and spent his days in the Pennsylvania heartland of the Society of Friends. The Quaker path was a stern one then: dress, speech, and meetinghouses were all conspicuously plain and unadorned. Hicks identified strongly with the austerity of Quaker values, and preached them as a lay minister on mission journeys up and down the east coast. Painting pictures, he declared in his Memoirs, "appears clearly to me to be one of those trifling, insignificant arts, which has never been of any substantial advantage to mankind." He called it "the inseparable companion of voluptuousness and pride," adding that "it has presaged the downfall of empires and kingdoms; and in my view stands now en rolled among the premonitory symptoms of the rapid decline of the American Republic."

There were, however, two problems with his oft-repeated admonition. First, painting was the only trade Hicks was ever able to follow with any success; and second, no matter how much he intellectually disapproved of painting pictures, he couldn't stop doing it. Once his course was set, Hicks tried to balance, if not reconcile, his contradictory impulses. By day, he painted useful objects: coaches, signboards, and furniture. But by night, he turned to his easel. "My constitutional nature," he wrote with regret, "has presented formidable obstacles to the attainment of that ...

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