Black Thursday: Depictions of Thanksgiving

by Jeriah Hildwine

It may be a truism that the more a thing is beloved by the majority of the American population, the more it will be disdained by the art world.  This is true of artists:  consider Monet, Rockwell, and of course Thomas Kinkade.

(Bob Ross is somehow too lovable for even the most bitter cynics to dislike; I've never heard anyone breathe an ill word about him.)  Andrew Wyeth is part of this phenomenon as well; serious art people look at his work like the non-art public look at conceptual installations:  curious, but suspicious also that a trick is being played on them, to make them look dumb. 

Maybe this, ultimately, is why so many in the art world are resistant to beauty, nostalgia, sincerity, and sentimentality:  opening ourselves to these impulses requires a vulnerability that can be frightening. 

This may be a part of why it is so difficult to look at an image of Thanksgiving without irony:  if we admit that we like it, we're afraid that we might look stupid.

Our present-day image of what Thanksgiving, and particularly the First Thanksgiving, looks like, were created during the Colonial Revival period, from about 1860 to World War I. 

The Pilgrims had what they called a Thanksgiving, but you certainly couldn't say that they "celebrated" it:  their idea of Thanksgiving was a full-day prayer session, thanking God for holding back from the smiting for a little while.  There wasn't any revelry going on. 

What we think of as Thanksgiving is based on a traditional Harvest Festival, which in England has distinctly pagan roots.  No doubt the Puritans had toned it down a bit by the time they got to what are now our shores.

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Jennie Augusta Brownscombe "The First Thanksgiving" (1914)

By the late 19th Century, however, the American tradition of idealizing and revising the past was well underway, and Colonial Revival paintings of the First Thanksgiving eschew historical accuracy in favor of idealized icons of Americana. 

"The First Thanksgiving" (1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, is probably the best example of this.  No wattle-and-daub houses in the English style for these Pilgrims; in the background you can see a log cabin, presumably the one in which Abe Lincoln was born, and which he built with his own two hands.  (Time is broken here.) 

Brownscombe's got Massasoit and his Wampanoags in Lakota attire, down to the feathered bonnets.  In this version of Thanksgiving, you expect John Wayne to ride while Lee Greenwood plays and fireworks light up the sky. "The First Thanksgiving," 1915, by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris isn't quite so over-the-top.

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Jean Louis Gerome Ferris "The First Thanksgiving" (1915)

Maybe there's something about gearing up for war that puts us in the mood for Ye Olde Chuckle-Cheezle celebrations of Americana:  Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA was released in 1984 (ironic?), but no one gave a tin shit until 1990, when we were tuning up for Round One with Saddam.  Hey, remember that guy?  So images of the First Thanksgiving were in vogue during World War I, and thirty years later, we were ready for seconds.

Norman Rockwell is one of those painters that artists love to hate.  He is more commonly referred to as an illustrator than an artist, and this is what he called himself (for example, in the title of his autobiography, My Life as an Illustrator). 

His take on the art world might well be summed up by his painting for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, 1962, in which a viewer stands in front of what can only be interpreted as Rockwell's idea of a Pollock.  And Rockwell was an optimist, at least in his paintings:  he painted the world not the way it was, but as he wanted it to be. 

And he knew it:  he said so in interviews, and his Triple Self Portrait is an excellent piece of self-deprecating humor.  The subtle idealization that he shows himself committing (hair darker and fuller, wrinkles smoothed, no glasses, pipe erect) mirrors the way he painted only the nicer aspects of life.

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Norman Rockwell "Freedom From Want" (1943)

Norman Rockwell's "Thanksgiving Picture" is actually titled Freedom From Want.  Freedom From Want is one of the Four Freedoms articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941; the other three are Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom From Fear.  Rockwell painted all four of them in a six-month period in 1943.  The paintings ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for four consecutive weeks in 1943.  They were also exhibited to sell war bonds, and reproduced as posters under the heading, "Ours...To Fight For."  This is what is essential, and often forgotten, about Rockwell's Thanksgiving:  it is propaganda for war. 

Brownscombe, Ferris, and Rockwell all depicted Thanksgiving in an idealized manner, and all of them made these depictions while America was engaged in a global war.  They functioned as "why we fight" justifications of the superiority of the American way of life, of what we had to lose.

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John Currin "Thanksgiving" (2003)

What, then, is the function of John Currin's Thanksgiving, 2003?  Painted around the beginning of the Iraq War (Afghanistan had been underway for two years), it would seem to fit the pattern in terms of chronology.  Yet Currin does not treat the subject matter with the deference of his predecessors.  Could this image be, in fact, a mockery of the naive patriotism which was so fashionable in the first few years after September 11, 2001?

One reading would start with it being an appropriation of Rockwell, and then catalog the changes:  the turkey is uncooked, and the three characters all appear to be similar women (Currin's wife Rachel, in fact).  One of them is feeding another something off of a spoon; the vessel from which she is serving is unseen, but she holds its lid.  The third woman fondles a grape with a gesture slightly reminiscent of Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of her Sisters in the Bath by the School of Fontainebleau.

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School of Fontainebleau "Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of her Sisters in the Bath" (c. 1595)

 
Certainly the image does not speak to the joy and comfort of American life as Rockwell's did.  One could easily infer from the painting's cultural context that a form of political subversion was intended:  one subject being spoon-fed an unseen substance by another, an allegory of the lies and propaganda used by Bush and his administration in an attempt to justify an unecessary preemptive war? 

The uncooked turkey, so different from Rockwell's well-done, golden brown bird  a signifier that we were embarking on a course of action for which we were unprepared?  Or that we had unfinished business (in Afghanistan) to be resolved before we started something new?  The woman fiddling with the grape:  Currin's way of telling us he was just fucking with us?

Currin says not.  The following are his comments, which accompany the image in the book John Currin:

This was an idea that I had started before September 11, but it just didn't work--it was a failed painting that sat around in my studio.  I decided to retry the idea, and that was when Rachel got pregnant. The funny thing is that the painting took me exactly nine months to finish, and the painting turned into an allegory of Rachel's pregnancy. Certain kinds of paintings were on my mind at the time--Dutch genre paintings, Velázquez's bodegones--but as soon as I began, it became more about Rachel, and she posed for the figures a lot. When my painting goes well, it's like rolling a ball down a hill: you try hard in the beginning, but then it takes on its own life and you let it go where it wants to go. Some things become allegorical, and other things are just about what you see. I had been told that my paintings were anachronistic, and so I wanted to do what I'd been accused of doing. That's why I included the old-fashioned mirror and the Corinthian columns.

This is as good a place as any to mention the fallacy of intentionality.  Every hip postmodern art theorist takes this one for granted, for the most part because without it, they'd be out of a job.  Want to know what a work of art means?  Ask the artist! 

Not so fast, says the fallacy of intentionality:  the artist's interpretation of his or her own work isn't any more valid than anyone else's.  Well, alright then.  John Currin says the painting is about his wife Rachel, whereas I say it's an inversion of the typical depiction of Thanksgiving as exaltation of the American way and thus implicit justification for the war we were about to embark on at the time.

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  • Although Thanksgiving is apparently completely based on myth, I think this an appropriate choice for analysis during the holiday season and well written...I agree the art community often disdains the emotional and literal/figurative, etc. There are strong proponents, in the art community, of the artists you mention, of course. Unfortunately this commentary is more typical than you may have intended. No African American artist was sited either way...as trite or challenging! Horace Pippin (who was a veteran of WWI), Henry O. Tanner, Archibald Motley,Jr., Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott (World War II veteran), Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Philemona Williamson, Fred Wilson, Kerry James Marshall, Margaret Burroughs, Fahamu Pecou...none did an art work addressing the theme of Thanksgiving? On the other hand, I am reminded on this Thanksgiving that issues around race are definitely an American tradition that have not yet been resolved!

  • Joyce,

    If Kara Walker has a Thanksgiving piece, I'm not aware of it, but I'd love to see it. She's one of my favorite artists, has been ever since I saw her on Art:21 back in college. I've seen her work at SF Moma, NY Moma, and the MCA Chicago, and pretty much everything she's done has been very solid. I can only imagine her take on Thanksgiving, it must be pretty brutal (in the best way).

    Kerry James Marshall is another great, and again I must confess I'm not aware of his Thanksgiving piece. He's another artist I was first exposed to through Art:21; since then I've seen his work at SF Moma (was there this summer and they have one of his on display), as well as the work recently up in the MCA and his room in the Modern Wing. All very good stuff, and his sylized, idealized, and satirized take on wholesome Americana would be a perfect lens through which to view this holiday. Again I must confess that I'm not aware of the existence of this work. There's a lot out there and I sure haven't seen all of it. I'd appreciate a link if the work is available on-line (I couldn't find it; a Google search gave this article and your comments as the first hit!), or if you know where I could see it.

    Faith Ringgold, too, deals with this kind of subject broadly (that is, American traditions), and again, I haven't seen her Thanksgiving piece. I know her work although not as well as Marshall and Walker; I've seen a few things in person as well as her appearance on Art:21, and I saw her speak in person at the College Art Association conference a few years ago in New York. I'd be curious to see her take on it as well.

    The other artists you mentioned, I know less well. I looked each of them up, and again, in most cases a Google search for their name + Thanksgiving gave your comments on this article as the first hit. I did find works by Horace Pippin and Henry O. Tanner that seem to relate to the theme.

    http://www.superstock.com/stock-photos-images/1114-1038

    http://daphne.palomar.edu/mhudelson/WorksofArt/23PostImp/3545.html

    Both Pippin's "Giving Thanks" and Tanner's "The Thankful Poor" stand in stark contrast to the (white) artists I cited. Neither Pippin nor Tanner depict what I'd call a "feast" such as Rockwell presents, and neither shows the conspicuous display of consumption I associate with a Thanksgiving as we celebrate it now. Rather, they seem to show working-class families expressing gratitude for a simple daily meal.

    I don't know these artists or their histories well, and perhaps you know more than I, but it looks as though these depictions may not even show a "Thanksgiving" in the sense of the national holiday, but something closer to the Pilgrim's tradition of "giving thanks" that I mentioned above, which was more of a prayer session than any kind of feast or celebration. These images certainly cast light on our holiday, but they're definitely a very different kind of image than the early 20th Century conceptions of the so-called "First Thanksgiving," and almost diametric opposites of the celebratory (almost gloating) Rockwell.

  • "Freedom From Want" was political propaganda to promote war?
    What is wrong with our great generation stopping the Nazis?
    Oh that's right we MUST be "Correct" and not judge the Nazis!
    I really love the clear plates set on a whit tablecloth in the
    painting by that no good illustrator Norman Rockwell. That is real
    art. No you can't force us to love the uncooked turkey painting or
    the painting with the sisters in the bathtub with the finger on the
    nipple. I don't like it and few people do.
    I like the comment that we should open up Thanksgiving to all
    people and all of God's children can give thanks together just as
    He intended! That would be against your idea of what is good and
    what is evil. I don't care anymore what your newspaper promotes
    anymore and I pray that others stop reading your propaganda too.
    Good bye, happy Thanksgiving and God bless you.

  • My point was, did you only consider white artists? I did not list Kara Walker; you may know there is a heightened "sensitivity" among some of the African American cultural community about her work. But I am asking if others like Betye Saar, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Richard Mayhew, Robert Duncanson, David Driskell, Lois Mailou Jones, The AfriCobra artists (Jeff Donaldson, Michael Harris, Murray dePillars, Barbara Jones-Hogu, etc.) or Renee Stout, Bill Walker and Joyce Scott were on the radar for this piece?

    Glad you followed up!

  • In reply to JoyceOwens:

    Joyce,

    To answer your first question, race was not a criterion in selecting the artists about whom I wrote in this article.

    My starting point was basically brainstorming about art and Thanksgiving, and thinking about depictions of Thanksgiving with which I was already familiar.

    The John Currin leapt immediately to my mind, as he is one of my favorite contemporary painters and I follow his work fairly closely. I also recalled the Rockwell as it's a fairly well-known image, and I saw the original painting in an exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art when I was in my late teens.

    So that's where it started. The two paintings from 1914-1915 commonly accompany articles on the (so-called) First Thanksgiving, and kept popping up everywhere I looked (online) for information on the subject.

    I know Norman Rockwell to be white because of his Triple Self-Portrait; John Currin I would imagine as white because the subjects in his paintings are almost all white people, although this may have as much to do with his interest in traditional European painting traditions as with his own race. The two artists who depicted the First Thanksgiving I would guess to be white due to the relative rarity of African American artists, in proportion to whites, working in an academic realist style in the United States during 1914-1915, but there are exceptions: Edmonia Lewis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmonia_Lewis), of mixed African and Native American ancestry, is an excellent example. Her sculptures are quite powerful figurative works in marble, and are particularly notable for her active period of approximately 1870-1911 or thereabouts.

    So, my sole criterion for selecting works to discuss in this article was, "depictions of Thanksgiving in art, particularly those which are well-known, either to me personally or in publications about Thanksgiving." Had there been prominent works on the subjects by other artists, I certainly would have included them regardless of the artists' race. A Native American artist's perspective on Thanksgiving would be particularly interesting, I'd think.

    In regard to the "scope of my radar," the limitations in question are essentially those of my experience (there's a lot of art out there, and I haven't seen it all), and of access to information (if an artist isn't well-known, odds are I haven't heard of them, and won't stumble across them). Race wasn't a criterion.

    Neither was gender; did you notice that all the artists I mentioned were not only white, but male as well? I've seen the Guerilla Girls lecture, and I'm as loathe as anyone to contribute to the continued exclusion of female artists from the artistic canon. But unfortunately, none of the most well-known depictions of Thanksgiving are by women, and if there are hidden gems by Mary Cassat or Janet Fish or any one of the other excellent female artists out there, I'm not aware of it. Certainly I didn't see a work of art depicting a Thanksgiving dinner by a female artist and exclude it on the grounds of the artist's gender, any more than I excluded any artist on the grounds of race.

    Incidentally, you might also have noticed that all of the depictions I chose were paintings, as opposed to sculpture, photography, printmaking, video, performance, etc. That's a prejudice I admit: I like painting, and while I can and do write about work in other media, painting is my baby and I do tend to default to it to the exclusion of other media. It's my forte, and so it's what I tend to focus on.

    Regarding my unintentional insertion of Kara Walker into your list of African-American artists, I can only speculate that I consider her to be so important, I'm honestly surprised when I see a list of African-American artists and her name isn't on it. Along with Kerry James Marshall and Michael Ray Charles, she's part of what I think of as the top tier of present-day African-American artists making aesthetically powerful and conceptually deep work about race. I can see why some might have a hard time with her work, but then, most of my favorite work is that with which some people have a hard time. An artist whose answers are easy to take, probably isn't asking very interesting questions. I'd still love to see her take on Thanksgiving.

    The real issue I think your questions raise, though, are really beyond the issue of Thanksgiving in art. The question it seems you're driving at is, when a group (women, African Americans, etc.) are excluded or marginalized in representation, where does the bottleneck to their inclusion occur, and how can it be remedied? This is a big and difficult question, the kind with no easy answers, and therefore precisely the kind that's worth asking. Solutions range from intentional, focused inclusion (such as an article on, or exhibition of, artworks by women, or by African-Americans) to a race- or gender-blindness, where topics are discussed without any prejudice for or against any population. The problem with the former is that this form of targeted inclusion can in fact function as its own sort of marginalization; the problem with the latter is that it too easily (and unconsiously) perpetuates the status quo. Curate a show of African-American art, and the implication may be perceived that the artists in the exhibition wouldn't hold up to inclusion with white artists. (This was Grace Hartigan's objection to all-woman shows; she wanted to be shown with, and judged against, abstract painters of both sexes, not women of various artistic styles.) Even if the artists included are all very good, the very nature of the exhibition opens them up to that kind of criticism. Conversely, however, a total neutrality perpetuates the extant problems: it's too easy for any given institution (even a lowly blogger such as myself) to pass the buck, blame the problems on another aspect of society, and shirk responsibility. These are complex issues, and I don't think I'm going to be able to solve them here. That feels, as I write it, like a sort of lame duck sidestepping on my part, but I'm afraid that it's the best I'm going to do at 1:30AM on Thanksgiving night. I hope you had a happy one yourself, and thank you for the very interesting discussion. I look forward to hearing more about this and other issues from you in the future.

  • In reply to JoyceOwens:

    I'm glad to see this conversation taking place, though I think the premise--i.e. black artists being excluded from a conversation about "Thanksgiving art"--is an imperfect one. With my own forty year interest in art in general and black artists in particular I'm hard placed to think of a black artist who has represented the celebration of Thanksgiving in their work.

    The larger issue that Joyce raises--and that Jeriah also then seems to acknowledge in his response--is that black artists (along with women, and other artists of color) always seem to be hiding in plain sight as far as the larger art world is concerned. Not that we are all suffering from critical and institutional indifference. I couldn't honestly include myself, Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Radcliffe Bailey, et al in the "overlooked" category. Rather, what is true is that the work of black artists and others does tend to be overlooked when the issue at hand is not race (or gender) per se.

    The challenge then remains to keep artists of color (and women) on the critical radar, even when the conversation or thematic discourse is NOT around issue of race or gender. Our work too is about broad ideas and a conversation with art history, not simply a self reflective conversation on race (and gender).

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