One summer day in 1854, Hannah Cohoon, a longtime Shaker, had a vision of a singular and curious tree. She saw plainly the branches, leaves and fruit, and she painted them on a sheet of white paper. One of the Shaker elders told her the name of the tree: the Tree of Life.
In the 1930s, The Tree of Life was discovered in a drawer. It has since become an icon of all things Shaker. The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited it twice. It appeared on the cover of magazines and books, in gallery and museum exhibits and on a postcard for Unicef.
Hannah Cohoon’s paintings survive as part of a body of 200 works created by Shakers, mostly by women, in Hancock Shaker Village, Mass. and Lebanon, N.Y. The Shakers called them “gift drawings.” They were gifts from the Spirit, based on messages they received during ecstatic spiritual visitations.
It was the Era of Manifestation, a time of spiritual revival when Shakers had visions. They expressed those visions — gifts — in song, dance and drawings. The era lasted from 1837 to the mid-1850s, when the Shakers decided their emotional excesses were embarrassing.
Many Shakers created gift paintings, but Hannah Cohoon painted unusually bold and graceful images. She may have thought so too, because she signed her paintings when others didn’t.
Hannah Cohoon was born Feb. 1, 1788, in Williamstown, Mass., the youngest of three daughters born to Noah Harrison. He had served as a drummer boy in the American Revolution. She had two older sisters, Lois and Polly.
On March 15, 1817 at 29, she entered the Shaker community of Hancock, Mass., with her 5-year-old son Harrison and 3-year-old daughter Mariah. Nothing has been discovered about her husband or her marriage.
Cohoon painted A Bower of Mulberry Trees from her vision of Shaker elders feasting on cakes under mulberry trees. The doves represent the bounties of heaven, the table depicts holy feasts held biennially.
She is remembered today for her gift drawings, but she also wrote music.
Cohoon described how the Tree of Life came about in pencil on the painting:
I recieved a draft of a beautiful Tree penciled on a large sheet of white paper bearing ripe fruit I saw it plainly it looked very singular and curious to me. I have since learned that this tree grows in the Spirit Land. Afterwards the spirit showed me plainly the branches, leaves, and fruit presented or drawn upon paper. The leaves were checked or (unreadable) and the same color you see here. I entreated Mother Ann to tell me the name of this tree which she did Oct 1st 4th hour PM by moving the hand of a medium to write twice over Your Tree is the Tree of Life.
Hannah Harrison Cohoon died in Hancock, Mass., on January 7, 1864.
This story updated in 2023.