Shaker Gift Paintings

Shaker Gift Paintings

By Daniel W. Patterson

In the film "The Shakers"—particularly at moments when a voice-over mentions Shaker visions—Tom Davenport's camera pans over a Shaker painting. All of this artwork comes from a period the Believers called "Mother's Work" or "The Era of Spirit Manifestations." This powerful revival flared suddenly in the late 1830s, burned brightly through the mid-1840s, and left an afterglow that gradually faded out in the late 1850s. The earliest dated gift painting or drawing comes from 1841 and the last from 1859. Other Shakers in this period and later executed maps and views of the villages and after 1870 even landscapes and floral drawings. But it is the gift paintings from Mother's Work that embody most deeply the religious experiences of the Believers.

This revival sparked creativity in many areas of Shaker life, and all its phenomena are interwoven. There is in fact no clear line between the paintings and the contemporaneous gift songs. Some songs are written upon the drawings, and drawings appear in some song manuscripts. Both came to Shakers in the same ways and for many of the same purposes in the 1840s and '50s.

But the songs are much easier to explore than the drawings. Shaker writings discuss the songs extensively. They even analyze the repertory, naming many distinct genres of song: solemn songs, hymns, anthems, one-verse standing songs, quick marches, slow marches, compound marches, gift songs, and so on. Early Shaker musicians wrote and even printed books of instruction and theory. In letters and diaries they constantly described how they got songs by inspiration and how they used them in worship services and daily life.

By contrast, the words painting or drawing scarcely occur in Shaker documents. We can see that Shakers occasionally refer to the paintings and drawings, but they do it in language that unintentionally hides the subject. They were thinking of their artistic handiwork simply in terms of its function (“token of love,” “gift,” “present,” “reward"), or its format (“sheet,” “roll”) or its symbolic mode (“emblem,” “type,” “figure,” “sign”).

The drawings were part of the wider production of inspired writings. This is particularly true of the sub-set that functioned as presents. These gifts the Shakers often executed on cards or heart- and leaf-shaped pieces of paper. When these writings included drawings of heavenly objects, the Believer was more likely to see and comment upon the words inscribed on the paper than to be struck by the drawings. Br. Isaac N. Youngs, for one, might be looking at sketches of doves and crowns, lamps and roses, stars and harps, but he called them merely “papers . . . beautifully written over” or spoke of them as “signs and figures of objects in the spiritual world, with mysterious writings.”

When I began to study Shaker art, some of the questions I posed for myself were:
(1) how many different hands do we see at work in these pieces?
(2) who were they?
(3) which pieces did each person produce, and how many in all?
(4) which communities had active artists?

I was not able to establish a complete set of answers to each of these questions, but it was possible to establish some key facts. In 1983 in Gift Drawing and Gift Song I identified most of the artists and offered a catalog of works from each hand.

As products of the Mother's Work revival the artworks were most commonly executed by “instruments,” inspired persons who received them in dreams or trances or states in which spirits possessed and acted in their bodies. Often the gift came from someone in the spirit world for the instrument or someone else still living in the community. Instruments rarely signed their works, but the other names are often inscribed on the document and they may pinpoint the community of origin. Their distinctive scripts often identify the artists. Overwhelmingly these are either the society at Hancock, Massachusetts, or one dwelling house at Mount Lebanon, New York.

I found the ones from Hancock easier to attribute than those from Mount Lebanon. Only three hands were at work in the twenty-some paintings so far known to survive from Hancock. Many of them are variations of a single motif, a spiritual tree. One of the artists signed her works. This was Hannah Cohoon, whose "A Bower of Mulberry Trees" and "A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples" appear in the film. The most prolific artist at Hancock was Polly Collins. She did not sign her works, but a number of them are scattered through a manuscript that was clearly her commonplace book. Additional works are obviously in the same style. One sees six of her paintings in the film.

A larger output originated at Mount Lebanon. Most of the works come from a circle of six young women who can be identified by name, in the First Order of the Church Family. The seminal figure was probably the school teacher Sarah Bates, whose major works were a series of large rectangular drawings with a flowering heart in the center. The most skillful and prolific artist was her younger teaching assistant Polly Reed. Polly's "A Present from Mother Lucy to Eliza Ann Taylor" is shown in the film. The film also shows "Mother Ann's Word to her little child Elizabeth Cantrell" by Miranda Barber, one of the few not clustered within a commonplace book where she wrote accounts of her visions.

In sum, few Shakers executed gift paintings or drawings. The surviving works total about 200 pieces. The surviving works total about 200 pieces. Others have been lost. It is likely, of course, that many others have been lost. We even have descriptions of some not known to survive, as for example a seventeen-foot roll covered with “hiragliphics” that was displayed on benches in the meeting room at Watervliet in a service on July 12, 1844. A set of hearts by Polly Reed offers us, perhaps, a way to estimate the number of drawings that may have been executed. She apparently made one for each member of the First Order in April 1844, when it had 148 residents. Twenty-three or so of the hearts survive, a seventh of those probably made. If one may extrapolate from this rate of survival, the inspired Shakers may have painted or drawn some 1300 or 1400 works.

This stands in sharp contrast to the songs from the same era. Isaac Youngs estimated in 1848 that in the preceding decade Believers at Mount Lebanon had received 3,850 new gift songs. All other Shaker communities had also received many songs in this revival, and hundreds of Shakers served as instruments for them. And the Shaker gift of songs had in fact been flowing since the beginning of Shakerism in the 1780s and would continue for several more decades. My own estimate is that at least eight to ten thousand songs are actually preserved in Shaker song manuscripts, although they too underwent loss to fire and other threats.

So other questions arise:
(5) Why was the impulse to create these beautiful graphic arts so much weaker than the impulse to create songs?
(6) What were these paintings for?

The simplest answer to the first is that the Shakers were heirs to the Protestant aversion to icons in sacred places and to a working-class disapproval of finery displayed by the wealthy. Moreover, a prohibition against art was put forward in 1841 in the "Holy Orders of the Church Written by Father Joseph," which Philemon Stewart of Mount Lebanon received by inspiration: "No maps, charts, printings, writings & no paintings shall ever be hung up in your dwelling rooms, shops nor office." Oddly, however, with this law fresh on the books some faithful Shakers began to create paintings, if not to hang them up.

The answer must be something deeper and lie in how Believers used them. These spiritual gifts, like the songs, had many functions. Some of the earliest were mysterious signs and figures—a visual equivalent of talking or singing in unknown tongues. Such songs and drawings were not comprehensible. They served the Believers by confounding carnal wisdom, a necessary precondition to accepting a childlike dependence upon the Holy Spirit.

But by far the majority of the inspired paintings and inspired songs rewarded faithful striving. We see this clearly in one verbal message that Polly Collins recorded along with the visionary paintings in her commonplace book. “Dear child,” says the spirit of Mother Lucy Wright(1760-1821) in a dictated letter sent to Polly on March 6, 1841, “there are beautiful flowers growing all around Mother’s lovely vineyard, for those who are willing to labour therein.” And a year later Holy Mother Wisdom tells Polly, “ye are like the lovely bud upon the rose bush that is planted in Mother Ann’s beautiful garden which will grow and spread all around.” On still another occasion Polly recorded words from the spirit of Mother Sarah: “now you may receive my self denying love by 4 Claps with your lovely hands; and whenever you feel your spirits weary, read these lines, and repeat the claps of the hands. Then you may feel my love and blessing to encourage you.” These words and these drawings must have had much the same effect, to cheer and comfort Polly whenever she opened her notebook and contemplated them. They brought her closer to her spiritual forebears like Lucy Wright and to the spiritual source of her faith.

In her study of the gift paintings Sally Promey offers a convincing insight, that the Mother's Work revival was itself a response to a singular crisis in Shakerism. In the 1830s the last of the members who had personally seen and known Ann Lee, the charismatic founder of Shakerism, were dying away. New members were coming less often from revivals in the outside world, as members did in a bridge generation that included the families of Sarah Bates and Polly Collins and a third artist, Semantha Fairbanks. Now they came mostly from among orphans taken in and raised by the Shakers. Many of the young were restive and left the Society. "At a time in Shaker history when Ann Lee and the First Elders could not be seen," Promey asks, "how could their third generation followers experience contact with their founder?" Her answer is that the visionary images "became a moment of divine encounter" and "restored relationship and regulated behavior." The gift paintings of artists like Polly Collins had, then, an important role in the life of the community. Still, something was missing. These were personal gifts, and they served chiefly for the recipient's personal use.

Shakerism was a faith that encouraged an intense inner life. But it had another even more powerful dimension, the commitment to the communal life, to what the Shakers called Union. And this was achieved most deeply when all Believers in the community gathered in the meeting house for worship services. There they brought the songs they had received in private visions and dreams and shared them with the community. There all “united” in song, and, singing, “went forth in the dance,” a corporate exercise that symbolized, as Shakers said, “the one spirit by which the people of God are led.”

Many of the inspired paintings are lovely. They synthesize imagination, objects in the natural world Shakers saw around them, and time-tested traditional motifs that antedated Shakerism, motifs the Shaker artists had seen on quilts, embroidery, samplers, Masonic aprons, painted tin ware, gravestones, and other everyday objects. All of their artworks sprang, moreover, from deep Shaker sources of inspiration. A few, we know, got incorporated into worship services, but they were not painted large on stretches of wall or ceiling for all to see. Most of the paintings and drawings were small. They were held in one Believer's hand and studied. Because they could not well serve the corporate worship, they could be for Believers only a minor expression of the Shaker life. They were eventually discarded or stored in cabinets and forgotten. Songs from the same era, however, continue to serve in Shaker worship. Believers' lives and rituals rested on what Sr. Lillian Phelps calls in the film the "all-togetherness." In the words of a favorite Shaker saying, “You cannot go to Heaven alone.”