May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Gift Drawing: The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree

Hannah Cohoon (1788-1864) Messengers

Hancock, Massachusetts


Ink, pencil, and gouache on paper

16 x 20 7/8"

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.3

Photo courtesy Sotheby's, New York

Gift Drawing: The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree

America was founded on an alternative model of government that permitted greater freedom of expression than had been possible in most of Europe. Utopian, perfectionist, and separatist experiments that were within but not of the main body were largely tolerated, if not welcomed. Vestiges of the transcendent nature of genius are retained in visionary images that were revealed to Shaker “instruments” by deceased Shaker leaders or sacred figures during a period of religious revival in Shaker history known as the Era of Manifestations or Mother’s Work.

This is one of two nearly identical gift drawings of the tree of light—or life—by Hannah Cohoon, who was a twenty-nine year-old mother of two children when she joined the Shaker community in Hancock, Massachusetts, in 1817. The motif would have been well known to Cohoon, as it was prominent in American quiltmaking, needlework, and watercolors beginning in the eighteenth century. The tree of life was also a source of inspirational imagery for the original Shakers who emigrated from England in 1774 under the charismatic leadership of Mother Ann Lee. Cohoon’s vision was delivered by an angel whom she saw “as distinctly as [she] ever saw a natural tree.” This spirit guide moved Cohoon to record a glorious and moral representation that was received by her as a gift and would serve as a gift to inspire others. And in a practical aside, so typical of the dual nature of Americans in every walk of life, Cohoon also cautions on the back of this drawing that the recipient not touch the paint as it might flake off in her hands.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Gift Drawing: The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.