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 Hannah Harrison Cohoon  (1788 - 1864)

About: Hannah Harrison Cohoon
 

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Connecticut      Known for: Tree of Life Shaker inspirationals

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known for only four existing works of art, Hannah Cohoon has a unique reputation as a mid-19th century artist of the Shaker religion. Three of her identified paintings are of the Tree of Life and the other, "Basket of Apples", is a still life. Each is a precise, brightly colored, carefully balanced geometric arrangement painted with tempera and ink and combines elements of folk art with a sophisticated sense of visual impact. Cohoon applied her paint heavily enough to give a sense of texture, and this handling of paint was differed from other Shaker artwork that is painted with delicate, thinly applied watercolors.

Cohoon's background indicates she was unschooled as an artist and created her images from her heart based on religious conviction. For special effect, she coated the leaves of her Trees of Life with varnish---just enough to make them sparkle.

She did these paintings when she was a member of the Hancock, Connecticut Shaker community, and her subjects were linked to Shaker theology and history. For Shakers, The Tree of Life is their symbol of unity.

From a New England family with ancestors established in Connecticut by the 1650s, she was born Hannah Harrison in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a frontier village. Her grandfather was one of the first settlers there and amassed wealth owning the first gristmill. His sons served in the Revolutionary War, and one of them, Noah was the father of Hannah. He died when he was age 30, leaving Hannah's mother to raise three small daughters with Hannah the youngest at 18 months. It appears that the mother remained in Williamstown and that she remarried.

Hannah Cohoon had a comfortable upbringing and judging by the penmanship on her scrolls, she had good education. Strangely, an historian of the family does not mention Hannah, and that may be because she married someone not approved or perhaps because she converted to the Shaker religion. So nothing is known about her except that in 1817, she entered the Shaker community at Hancock, Connecticut, about 20 miles from her hometown, and that she brought a five year old son and a three year old daughter. Her reasons for entry are unknown, but she stayed there and six years later signed a covenant confessing her sins and giving her worldly possessions over to the community, which was the third oldest Shaker community in the country, having been organized in 1790.

She began her mystical drawings in 1845 at a time of "mystical excitement" when there was an outbreak of young Shaker women experiencing trances and visions of the spirit land. Her first painting was titled "The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree". Wanting to make it clear to viewers that she was both the visionary and the artist, she described it as resembling "so many bright torches" and something that made her feel very cautious "lest the blaze should touch my hand".

Little is known of Hannah Cohoon beyond the descriptions on her work, but John Harlow Ott, Director of the Hancock Shaker Village many years later thought she did not fit in very well because records show that she was in the fifth row at the meeting house services, and her daughter was two rows ahead of her. This placement meant that Cohoon, a ten-year member of the community, was kept at a distance from the seats of honor in the front row.

Hannah Cohoon died on January 7, 1864 at Hancock, just before her seventy-sixth birthday, and she is buried in the Family Cemetery of the Church. Very few Shakers have survived into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which is one of the reasons that Cohoon's paintings are so important historically. They "bear the impress of the Shaker spirit. More vividly than anything else made by Shaker hands, they embody the ecstatic mysticism of a vanishing faith." (65)


Source:
Essay by Ruth Wolfe, "American Folk Painters of Three Centuries", Edited by Jean Lipman and Tom Armstrong

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