Habits of Mind

  • Synthesize
  • Communicate

Painting the Past

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Explain realism and abstraction.

•  Explore ways in which art can communicate personal feelings and ideas. 

•  Research their own heritage and create a painting expressive of that heritage.




•  Have students research their own culture and heritage.  Develop a list of questions to guide the research, including country or countries of origin, language, food, clothes, art, religion/beliefs, folktales, etc.  Conduct research in a library and by interviewing family members or others from a similar background.

•  Based on their research, students can create sketches and a painting that express their heritage. 

(see Art Lesson: Painting the Past, pg. 4)

•  Display the sketches and paintings.

One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.

  • What elements does this work have? Is it a painting? What is the effect of the text?

  • What is the mood of the animals? And the little boy?

  • What is the effect of the dark color of the trees? And the tree trunk? Look at the composition as well as the tone.

  • Read the text framing the image. What does it tell you?

  • What do you notice about proportions? What could be the relevance of that?

  • Look at the four corners. What are the little paintings within the painting?

  • The text and different scenes depicted suggest a story. What hints does the rhyme “When the great PENN his famous treaty made with Indian chiefs beneath the elm trees slade” give you about the story? What does this tell you about the group of people on the left?

  • According to legend, in 1682 Quaker reformer William Penn met with Native Americans at Schackamaxon in what is now Philadelphia to exchange gifts for land. Although history shows that Penn did meet with the Lenape, no actual treaty exists. What parts of the painting refer to the possible historic event?

  • Is the scene with the boy and the animals realistic? What do you think it stands for?

  • The rhymes in the borders also refer to the biblical prophecy of Isaiah, which expresses the hope and promise of peace on earth. Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher, believed William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians represented a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. How does Hick represent his Peacable Kingdom as an allegory for peace?

  • What compositional tools does the artist use to suggest peace and harmony?

  • How do you think a painter of our time would depict the subject of a peace treaty? Is there still room for morals and religion in contemporary painting?

Edward Hicks’s The Peaceable Kingdom presents an ideal world of peace and harmony.  The artist combines the biblical image of a child surrounded by animals with a scene of William Penn’s treaty with the Indians.  The scene in the right foreground was inspired by a verse in the biblical book of Isaiah, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”  Here the animals named in biblical verse gather around a young child dressed in white with a red sash, and holding an olive branch, a symbol of peace.


At the left in the middle ground are William Penn and his men, in their distinctive Quaker dress, meeting the Indians.  In 1681, King Charles II of England gave the area now called Pennsylvania, or Penn’s woods, to William Penn’s father in payment for a debt.  William Penn, a Quaker who had been persecuted because of his religion, wanted to establish freedom of religion and the right to self-government in Pennsylvania.  He also made a treaty with the Indians and paid them for their land.  He was so honest and fair with the Indians that they never attacked Penn’s colony. 


In the distance of the painting is the ship that brought Penn and his Quaker followers to the New World.  Hicks’s words interpreting the scene are painted in the borders.  In the corners are words and emblems for virtues including liberty, innocence, and meekness.


The full faces and expressive eyes of the children and animals in the work demonstrate Hicks’s early ability as a portrait artist. His background as a sign painter is evident in the detailed lettering that surrounds the painting. The artist creates a sense of depth by making the objects in the distance smaller and less detailed. The diagonal lines of the path and of the river also serve to lead the eye to the horizon. While some elements in the painting are carefully observed from nature, the animals are rather fanciful. The cool colors create a somber mood.


Edward Hicks began his career as a sign- and coach-painter.  He also painted expert lettering on leather buckets for the volunteer fire department.  From these beginnings, Hicks began painting farm scenes and landscapes, and he soon embarked on his most famous works, The Peaceable Kingdom, of which he may have painted more than one hundred versions.  Hicks himself was a Quaker, and he intended these paintings to be a visual message of harmony, exemplifying the Quaker vision of a peaceful society.  For many years, Hicks devoted himself to preaching, and his joy and pleasure in painting caused him much inner turmoil because he felt it conflicted with his religious beliefs.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider